Pining for Fjords

At the end of my last post, I was leaving Helsinki, Finland, and heading by plane to Oslo, Norway, homeland of Norse gods.  Before I move on to that, a few brief status updates.

First: I’ll be returning to L.A. on Tuesday, November 7th, and staying with friends Mark & Jane through the holidays in the usual fashion.  I have not had one drop of sake since I left, and I am greatly regretting this condition, so be prepared to help me remedy it.  Make your reservations now.  🙂

Second: I will be heading out again on Sunday, January 7th, to spend 2018 in Central America.  Arriba, arriba, eh what?  I’ve updated my Itinerary page with the first place I’ve booked, a little open air room on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, where I will be staying for a month before moving on to Granada, Nicaragua, for another 1-2 months (which I expect to book in the next couple of weeks).  I’m having another pass at studying Spanish, which seems a little more important now that I’m going to be spending all year in Spanish-speaking territories.  This is proving to be easier than I remembered: “Yo soy un hombre, yo bebo leche!”  I think I was just using the wrong language learning system.  I’ve barely touched the new training software, and already I’m beboing all the leches, so I’m very optimistic for the next year.

After Granada, I’m roughly expecting to hit Panama City next, then Cartagena and Bogota, Columbia, and then Quito, Ecuador, possibly with some Belize and Costa Rica squeezed in for completeness (depending on availability and cost).  My objective is to come in way under budget next year, to make up for my European way-over-budget this year, and Central America seems like a great place to do it.  And this part of the world is super popular amongst American retirees (and several countries go out of their way to encourage that), so it may also serve as a bit of location scouting for when I stop traveling.  Although, in fact, all of my traveling is serving that purpose — so far, Edinburgh is the only place that’s really leapt out as my hands-down favorite, but Split, Croatia, also rates. (I loved Sapporo, but the language barrier is considerable.)  But there’s plenty of places still to see: Budapest, Berlin, Tartu (Estonia), Bali, New Zealand,…  I’ve got at least 3 more years of this and probably more like 6 or 7.  Plenty of time.

Not that where I started wasn’t appealing.

If only I could have breathed the air…. Sigh. <cough, hack, gasp>

A quick word about Catalan

One last note: if you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may be hearing about some serious issues going on with the Catalan region of Spain having an independence vote, one that the Spanish government has been a bit violent in trying to suppress.  I talked about that a bit in my post on Barcelona — that they saw themselves as a separate region was, to me, pretty obvious —  and now it seems to be coming to a head.  As of the time of this writing, the vote has been held, with 90% voting in favor of independence.  Mind you, the turnout was only 42%, but that’s pretty high for an election in modern times — and doesn’t include all of the ballot boxes that the Spanish police seized as they tried to prevent it (and injured hundreds of peaceful voters while doing so).

It may sound as though I’m in favor of their independence… and that’s because I am.  Not that it’s not a difficult question — if, say, Texas wanted to secede, should the U.S. let it?  I always lean towards Yes in these sorts of questions, because I’m predisposed towards democracy and the rights of citizens to have the government that they want.  But what if only Tucson wanted to secede?  Or Alamo Heights (the suburb of San Antonio that I grew up in)?  Is there a point that the larger government can say, “No, we’re a collective entity, and you don’t arbitrarily get to change your mind about that”?  And where do you draw that line?  I think the answer is that there is no global answer — because “Always Yes” or “Always No” means Yes to Tucson, or No to Tibet.  There are only case-by-case answers and trying to use best judgements about the specific situations, and negotiating in good faith.  But sending in cops to beat voters is clearly not good faith, and I fear that the Spanish government channeling former dictator Franco has turned what might have been a divided issue into a newly united Catalan and assured their eventual independence.  Lets hope the EU can help them resolve the matter peacefully.

Norway

So, my flight from Croydon to Helsinki was on Norwegian Air Shuttle, an airline I’m becoming increasingly familiar with ever since I discovered, last May, that I could get a direct flight from Oslo to L.A. for $218.

Let me repeat that: $218. 😳

I thought about flying back from Oslo a few additional times — you hate to waste a deal like that — but I confess that I’m really too lazy to make the effort. Even though I’m missing the chance to save so much money!  Once will have to do.

Once I discovered that, and immediately booked it, the rest of my autumn became structured around it.  Ideally, I’d have gone to Finland first, then Stockholm, and then Oslo, and flown home out of Oslo.  But in the weird nightmare of Airbnb booking that I went through in May — limited listings that met my requirements (time, location, price range, facilities), people not responding or confessing that their place wasn’t really free because they hadn’t updated their listings, etc — there wasn’t really a good way to do that.  So, I ended up flipping Oslo and Stockholm around, and counting on the express train between them to get me back to Oslo on November 7th in time for my flight.

So. The NAS flight from Helsinki into Oslo went off without a hitch.  Well, not for me, at any rate.

I’m known for my dislike of Windows, and this is just one example of the reason. I tell you, the number of public displays that I’ve seen, in transit centers, malls, and museums, that have their function interrupted by Windows dialogs and error messages, is really kind of stunning considering how long these sorts of things have been going on. How does Windows not have a stable display function yet? And, more importantly, was the guy trying to hack this with his iPhone successful? (I hate cliffhangers.)

Thankfully, once again the NAS baggage restrictions didn’t seem to stop me from getting my large pack in through carry-on and into the overhead.  (At Gatwick, the first time I flew with NAS, I’d actually asked the ticket attendant about the pack, rather than putting all my eggs in the “maybe I can sneak it on” basket, and she’d had a sort of positively non-committal answer that pretty much said, “Yeah, maybe we have rules, but maybe we don’t worry so much about it as long as there are no problems.”)  Fingers crossed that this lasts through my L.A. flight!

My seating preference rule for flights is Aisle seat for long flights (easy bathroom access) and Window seats for short flights (scenery). Didn’t see much of the ground, but the sky was amazing.

My early flight from Helsinki landed at 8:05am (benefiting, if you can call it that, from a time zone change), and then I had a wait.  Check-in at my new place wasn’t until 2:00pm, but one of the hosts had said my room might be ready sooner and she’d let me know.  Regardless, I knew I had hours to kill in the airport, which gave me plenty of time to eat a proper breakfast (and possibly lunch), get my currency changed (Euros to Norwegian Krona, $100 = kr795), discover that my Wells Fargo ATM card no longer worked (they’d already sent me a new one, and turned off the old <grumble><gnash><steam>), and then read for a bit.  Which, in the interest of getting it out of the way, was this: Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones.

It’s the first book of a series called the Chrestomanci Chonicles, that I’d been meaning to read for a while.  Diana Wynne Jones is a very well known British writer who passed away a few years ago, and is one of those folks whom I’ve been hearing about for years (she’s a great favorite of Neil Gaiman), but had never quite gotten around to reading.  Or, so I thought.

In fact, the more of the book I read, the more certain I became that I had, in fact, read it before. I think we’re looking at what I think of as The Kindle Problem.  In a regular, print book, you’re regularly reminded of the book cover, title, and author, because the cover is visible every time you pick up the book and put it down, or pass by it sitting on your table.  The Kindle doesn’t even show you the cover unless you manually page back to it — it insists on starting you on page 1 of the story, so unless you go back looking for them, you don’t see the cover, the dedication, the table of contents, any maps, casts of characters, etc.  I really hate that.  And you can go the entire book without ever being consciously reminded of what book it actually is that you are reading!  So, you can read it, remember the story but quickly forget the title and author, and then later put it on your Wish List — which Amazon will blithely let you do, even though it knows you’ve previously bought it.  Then a kind friend or family member buys it for your birthday (he writes, hypothetically), and you go to download it and Amazon says, “No, silly, you can’t download that, you already have it!”, and looks all coy about it. Like it doesn’t know.  Thankfully, Amazon lets you exchange, so you can get the next book in the series, or another entirely, and it all ends happily ever after.  But, still. Not ideal.

But I digress. The book’s good! The story of a boy in an England not unlike our, say, 1800s, except that magic is everywhere, with witches and alchemists and shape shifters and great enchanters.  His parents are killed in a boating accident, and he and his very magical older sister are taken in by a local hedge witch, at the behest of the village council, and have to make a new life for themselves. But the sister has Ambitions, and events quickly unfold that relocate the siblings to a more magical training ground, where the biggest challenge appears to be just fitting in to their new circumstances.  A task that neither of them are well adapted to….

(The “….” is mandatory at the end of such descriptions. I don’t make the rules.)

I’ve now read a few books in this series, and they’re all good.  They’re the sort written for kids, but written entertainingly enough that adults can enjoy them too.  If they have a common thread, it is that of kids in circumstances outside of their control, who can’t find a way to confide in the adults around them about the world-shaking issues that they’ve been pulled into — either because they’re certain (rightly or wrongly) that they won’t be understood or believed, or because they don’t really understand themselves and their own situations well enough to explain what’s wrong.  My memories of my own logical processes, when I was a child, aren’t completely clear, but the more I think about it, the more sense that makes.  There was a lot of stuff that I just endured, because that’s how the world was, when a broader perspective might have given me more sensible alternatives.  And plenty of times that I wasn’t happy with something, without any ability to analyze why not or to explain it to myself or anyone else.  This, of course, changes as you get older and have more access to useful 4-letter words, but I think Ms Jones captures that sense of, let’s say, incomplete cognition very effectively.  So, I’m enjoying them, and looking forward to the rest of the series.

But, Norway!!!

Oh, right. Well, as I say, I waited around in the airport for a bit, and then got a message at 11:00 that the place would be ready by 11:30. So, I collected my stuff, and set off.  The airport is about a 30 minute express-train ride northeast of Oslo (on a super modern train, with plenty of room, and pretty blue lights, and TV monitors with the Swedish Chef’s cousin telling you the news), through a lot of very pretty farm country.

I never ride trains in the U.S., and it’s only been in traveling that I’ve seen how closely farm country can press in on the borders of cities. When you fly, it feels like you just see landscape until you’re suddenly in the city, and driving is mostly about highway, and the minimarts and malls next to them. Trains are a different view entirely.

It’s probably a good time for a couple of maps. The one of Europe that I uploaded in a previous Finland post is probably good here, because it includes Norway to the left, on the other side of Sweden, and Oslo is at the star near the southern tip of Norway.  (You can ignore the Finland-centric comment.)

Stuck between Sweden and Russia, and very much regretting the arrangement.

Zooming in on Oslo, we have this map:

The main train lines arrive right next to the Visitor Center near the middle (very clever of the planners to direct them there), and my place is about a 20 minute walk west of there, just south of the park with the royal palace in it.

And, for all the fascinating details about Oslo, Wikipedia is there for you.  Particularly interesting to me is that the city was moved around the area a bit, after burning down a few times thanks to wooden buildings, and was called Christiana for quite a while — named after King Christian IV, who apparently roamed the country naming things after himself.  Also, when Norway became its own country again (after various alliances and whatnot) in 1905, they decided they needed a king, so they just invited someone to take over: a Danish prince named Prince Carl of Denmark, of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.   (I’m trying to imagine the scenario in which someone might turn down such an invitation, and I confess I’m coming up a bit short. Even if you didn’t really want to be a king, I’d think it would be worth it just to be able to have a new last name.  His original one must have been hell to spell out on government forms and web pages.)  The Norwegian royal family seems pretty cool, from what I’ve heard and read, very into sports and cross-country skiing and yacht racing (as participants, not merely viewers), in a “Hey, we’re all sports-loving citizens together, eh?” sort of way.  Norway’s a constitutional monarchy, and the King’s powers are limited, but he has a bigger role than, say, the Queen of England, and seems to be more broadly liked by the people.  The current king married a commoner back in the 60s, which was quite the issue at the time, but his son and heir married a commoner much more recently and nobody cared any more. So, yay for avoiding inbreeding! 🙂

Anyway, I took the train past the Oslo Central Station, to the next stop, the National Theater, and from there it was a short walk to my place.

Be it ever so humble. My place is on the right, the purply-brown building, with the entrance on the other side of the station wagon.  If you’d like to see the place in Google Street view, and wander around, here’s a link.

A few things to note, here:

  1. Overcast.  This was true a *lot* while I was here.  Apparently, this summer has been rather disappointing to Oslo residents, cooler than usual, more overcast, drearier than it usually is.  They were hoping that it would turn into a late summer, but no such luck.  There were sunny days while I was here, including several just as I was leaving (which I do tomorrow, Monday Oct 8th), but not many.
  2. Pretty. In my Finland post, I mentioned how disjoint its architecture was; Helsinki was not a pretty city, despite the parks.  Oslo was the reverse: a city where everything seemed to blend smoothly together, old and new, wide clean streets, all stylistically compatible, and definitely feeling very comfortable with itself.  I liked its vibe immediately — even just getting on the train at the airport — and I spoke with other travelers who felt the same way, which puts it up there with San Francisco, Sapporo, and Edinburgh in my book.
  3. Fjord. This shot is looking south down the street towards the Olso fjord, which you can see in the distance.  It’s the natural harbor that Oslo wraps around, with a well developed waterfront area that’s very nice to wander about.
  4. Pedestrians. Lots of walkers in Oslo, and ample public transit with buses and rail. (I saw barely any overweight people here, and for all I know they may have all been tourists. There were a lot of tourists.)  I was tempted to get a 30-day transit pass, for about $80, but I walk so much anyway that it didn’t really seem necessary.
  5. Cars. My street wasn’t a busy one — just a side street off of a main road — and my room faced an inside courtyard, so I heard no noise regardless.  But I was particularly impressed with how quiet the roads were.  Oslo doesn’t seem to be that car-centric a city anyway, but on top of that it has strongly encouraged electric cars and hybrids.  And I heard almost no horns, and no deliberately loud mufflers or car alarms.  So, while I did walk past a pretty noisy freeway once, most of the traffic was pretty unintrusive even when you were walking right alongside it, and the city as a whole seemed super calm and peaceful.
  6. Jackets.  The day I arrived, it was in the mid-50s, and the highs while I was there were pretty uniformly in the 50-65 range. (As a guy who finds himself in a Nordic country in autumn without a jacket, this made me pretty happy.)  But most people were dressed a lot more warmly that I was — not all, but most — and I really wasn’t sure how many of them were tourists. And there were clearly weekday mornings where people were going to work in coats and scarves, and I was walking about with my sleeves rolled up.  I’ve been living in Northern Europe pretty continuously for the last 2 years, and I think I’ve become a bit of a mutant… but I was really expecting to meet my cold-weather-tolerance match in Scandinavia, and I don’t think I have yet.  Being in Central America next year is going to be… interesting.

The place I was staying is listed here: a BnB run like a small hotel, called Valhalla, with 6 rooms all named after Norse gods and goddesses.  I was in the Loki room, which was about as cheap as I could find in the central city. (And I really wanted to be *in* the city this time, to be sure I saw a lot of it.)  But it was excellent: a long pair of hallways running along the second floor of the L-shaped building, with a large living/dining room at the central corner, 3 bathrooms (2 with showers), kitchen, laundry, etc.  The two smallest rooms, Loki and Freya, were at the end of the far hallway, farthest from the front door, so we got the least noise from the other residents — who were generally not that noisy, but the sound did carry and the distance was helpful. The Loki room was in between the largest bath/laundry room and the Freya room, and the sound from both rooms carried fairly well into mine, but I’ve become a sound sleeper in my travels, so I largely ignored it.  Harder to ignore was my loft-bed, which felt exactly as perilous as you’d expect, and even more so in the middle of the night when you really wanted to pee and had to be absolutely alert and careful as you clambered off the platform and down the ladder, and back up again after.  I will not comment on my success rate with that, as I still have 1 more night here, and I don’t want to jynx it.

The co-host, Joanna, was (and in all likelihood still is) a tall, dark-haired, Polish woman, probably in her 20s (I don’t know if she worked for the main host Andrej or if they were a couple), and very positive and energetic, and with excellent English (like everyone around here).  She’d show up most days at around 11:00 to do room set up as guests came and went; we didn’t talk much beyond cheerful hellos, but that was enough. Overall, I loved the place.  It did, however, have really rocky internet — around 7MB down on average, but kind of intermittent. Streaming videos would often be interrupted and have to pause until the connection got going again, and I had to cancel a couple of video calls and ESO group sessions because the connection just wasn’t stable enough.  You might not notice the problem much if you were just in for a couple of days and doing e-mail or a bit of streaming, but it was a lot more problematic for actual work. (Or for things that you’ve turned into work in your head.)  I told the hosts about it, but I knew it wouldn’t get resolved while I was there.  And it wasn’t much different, really, from my experience in Thailand and Japan — just unexpected to find in a high tech place like Norway.

So, Joanna happened to be there when I arrived, and she showed me around briefly before heading off. I meditated for a bit, and then set off on my 2 errands: find a yoga mat, and get some groceries.  You may recall that I’ve been leaving a trail of yoga mats in my wake as I travel; as risky as it is trying to get all of my luggage into carry-on, adding a yoga mat to the bundle bids fair to make it impossible.  So, every plane flight means leaving my yoga mat behind.  The one I bought in Seville got left in Barcelona (hopefully useful to my yoga-practicing hostess), and the one I bought in Edinburgh got left in Croydon. I had a decent rug in Helsinki that was good enough for the purpose, but my Oslo place had “wood” floors, and I’m not that much of a stoic.  So, I did a Google Maps search for sports shops, and started walking.

There was one directly south of me, and that took me down to the harbor.

I took a bunch of pictures of this harbor, from various angles, over the month I was here, and some of them were sunny and more impressive. But this was the first one, and it better reflects my arrival.

The city along the harbor is steadily being built up, with more and more apartments/condos and shopping/dining areas being arranged around it.  The sports store I was after was in this shopping district, and they did carry a yoga mat, but it was thinner than I was hoping for.  So I checked Google Maps again, and moved on.

What followed was about two hours of walking around the downtown area with a bunch of other folks in intermittent light rain.  For most of that, I was looking for yoga mats and not finding them. And then I found one in a Big 5 type sporting goods store, that had a dozen different mats — and one that was super thin, but partly made of bamboo and maybe light enough that I can travel with it.  (Apparently, I’m stoic *enough* to get by with a thin yoga mat.) And, second, looking for a starter set of groceries, which I mercifully found much more quickly.  But it was a really good thing to do on my first day, because I quickly realized that a huge swath of Oslo is wrapped around this harbor and all within fairly easy walking distance.  That saved me $80 right off the bat, because I realized I didn’t need the 30-day transit pass.  I also felt more connected to my environment immediately, as opposed to the much more gradual process that I normally go through.  And, I got pictures!

Studenterlunden Park – A central park area that runs along 3 city blocks between the National Theater in the west and the Norwegian Parliament building in the east. In the winter, the fountain and pools freeze over and are used as skating rinks.

Party in front of the Parliament building, so you *know* I was there.

A block from where I bought the mat, and a couple of blocks from the central station, the street I was walking along opened up into this bit of cityscape, and I just find something about it really appealing. Open spaces, different architectural styles that blend together well, modern without feeling artificial. It’s just attached itself as one of my central memories of Oslo.

If you’d given me the opportunity to list the things I would never expect to see in an Oslo park, Pikachu wouldn’t have even made it on. ‘Cause, come on, it would be a pretty big list, and I get tired of writing it long before I thought of Pikachu. Still… quite the surprise!

And, after this, I made it home and had a bit of dinner.

The perfect meal for my first night in Norway. If you’ve never had Gjetost cheese, I *highly* recommend it. I discovered this back in high school, when I was a member of the Cheeselover’s International cheese of the month club. (Because of course I was.) A Norwegian dark brown cheese, it’s made by heating the milk until the sugars caramelize, and it’s sweet and rich and yummy. In the U.S., you can generally find it in Whole Foods, and I was looking forward to finding it here. What I didn’t expect was that it would be *everywhere*. Every store that sold cheese had at least 3 or 4 varieties of it, from different cheesemakers.  <Cue angelic choir> It was awesome!

As I’ve reached the end of my first day in Norway, and I’ve got a pretty good word count, maybe this is a good place to end it.  Plus, that’s a whole day worth of travel time!  (Which is super efficient: at the rate of 1 day every 2 weeks, I’ll have back material for my blog well into 2035.)  Tune in next time for <spoilers> the Viking Longship Museum!!!  Woo-hoo!

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Finn-ishing Finland

I have often blamed my delay in getting to these blog entries on my absorption in video games, and that’s not untrue.  On the other hand, I’ve ramped waaaay down on ESO since I left Finland, and it’s still taken me a week to start on the 2nd Finland post, despite my intention to start on it almost immediately after publishing the first one.  Nature abhoring a vacuum, I’ve found myself spending hours reading stuff on Twitter — fascinating, informative, entertaining stuff to be sure, but my gods!

Of course, I’ve also been catching up on back episodes of Marvel Agents of Shield (finally finished the last season, sooo goood!), read a couple of books, started researching where I’m spending next year, dealt with the 2015 tax snafu, and an ATM card problem, started seeing a local chiropractor, and gotten out around Oslo a bit, so it’s not been all Twitter.  Thank the Maker.  Still, it’s really been a confirmation that Twitter is perfectly capable of filling my whole day with interesting diversions, leaving nothing else done.  This is not ideal, and I may have to be a bit more disciplined about how I use it.  Discipline, blech!  Oh well.

BTW, as I mentioned the 2015 tax problem last time: in case anyone was worried on my behalf, there’s no need.  While neither I nor Ameriprise know why my 2015 import of their data into TurboTax didn’t include everything, I’m told that it’s customary (when I owe extra taxes due to magical recirculating “income” that I never actually receive) to just call Ameriprise and have the taxes transferred out of wherever financial buckets that the related income was dumped into, so that I can pay said taxes on said invisible income.  So, effectively, it doesn’t count against the budget I’ve set myself, and I can stop worrying about it.  Also, it seems that their PDF tax summary reports, that they made available to me on their website well before the April 15th deadline, *did* show the taxable amounts.  They just didn’t match what I got from the automated import that year, for said mysterious reasons.  But the 2016 import matches the PDF reports, and now I have a better idea of what to keep an eye out for in future years.  So, whatever.  ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯

Anyway, back to Finland.

Finland

I’m kind of not sure how to organize this.  Last time, I covered traveling from Croydon to Finland, and then the Word Science Fiction Convention, and that was a nice, coherent block that all fit into about a week’s worth of time and a fairly convenient narrative.  The rest of this is kind of all over the place.

First, it should be noted that I played a pretty good amount of ESO while I was in Helsinki.  In the Croydon blog entry, I talked about the Midsummer Mayhem event, a big Player versus Player event where we joined up with other players from our 1/3 of the player pool to fight the other 2 player alliances for control of the central territory.  This event ended by early August, but the stuff you could get in it helped me to progress towards some game goals that I wanted, and even after the event the regular PvP play kept me progressing towards those goals, so I kept doing it.  Not at the same level — i.e. nearly-all-day-every-day — but still a solid 4-5 hours daily (for the most part) right through the end of my stay in Helsinki.  In fact, I got the final thing I was after just the day before I was scheduled to leave, which was super satisfying.

Since then, I’ve barely touched the PvP part of the game, and my hours have dropped way down.  They had another weekend-to-weekend event in a similar area that ended last Monday, and I did raise my hours a little for that, but nothing like the prior dedication.  And now even that’s over, and I’m barely in the game long enough to pick up my mail and hit a few useful daily tasks.  I’m starting to feel the pressure to write up my Norway time, and also to schedule my travel for next year, so I’ll probably hold off on more serious game stuff until that’s done.  (By then, I’m sure they’ll have another event to occupy me.)  I’ve got to say, I’m enjoying the break.  Though my fingers still get a bit twitchy first thing in the morning, when I’d normally log in over my morning coffee and oatmeal.

So, what else did I do in Helsinki?

Groceries

Yes, yes, laugh it up, but this was weirdly non-trivial.  I mentioned before that my host had sent me to a fairly tiny, squalid, grocery store nearby, and I was determined to find something better.  So, while at the convention center, 2 train stops away, I did a search for grocery stores and found 2 nearby, a Lidl and something called K-Market.  Lidl seems to be a German chain; I’d seen them in Ireland and Scotland and they were kind of weird there. A sort of small, low-end Ralphs with a big center section of random weird stuff, like slippers and garden equipment and bath mats resembling a weird mini-slice of Target dropped in for no coherent reason. They always felt… odd, like the Feng-shui was all honked up, and I tried to stay out of them.  (Murphy, my Edinburgh host, was a big fan of the local one, which I never went into, and he kept trying to persuade me to join him on trips there.)

So I walked the few blocks to K-Market first.  The area around the Messukeskus convention center was really pretty nice.

Kind of office-parkey, but attractive in a pleasantly neutral sort of way.

I like the way they use natural wood tones on the neighborhood security cameras. They fit right in, you’d hardly notice they were there.

Google Translate gave me the text of the sign: “The City Council announces the opening of a new Dog Park at the corner of Earl and Somerset, near the K-Market. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the Dog Park. People are not allowed in the Dog Park. It is possible you will see Hooded Figures in the Dog Park. Do not approach them. Do not approach the Dog Park. The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the Dog Park, and especially do not look for any period of time at the Hooded Figures. The Dog Park will not harm you.” Seems legit.

(I’m guessing maybe 3 of you are chuckling. For the rest, well, that’s what Google Search is for. 😁)

K-Market itself was a nice little grocery store, of a decent size and with a fair few organic choices.

The first time I’ve ever seen this! Vegetables delivered still in their pots. I guess that’s in case you have a change of heart, and decide to give them a 2nd chance at life instead of eating them. Very enlightened.

You may remember me ragging on the labeling for some Icelandic yogurt that I saw in a Philly Whole Foods earlier this year, due to the label suggesting that “Skyr” was somehow special because it used Icelandic bacteria cultures — like every local yogurt doesn’t use local cultures. Turns out, there’s a lot of Skyr in Nordic countries, and they don’t get so high-falootin’ about it. They just sell it to you. It’s perfectly good yogurt.

When Orthodox Lecithin is just too harsh for you….

Look, I’d known that the artist Tom of Finland is (quite reasonably) an even bigger deal in Finland than he is elsewhere. (The Finnish government has even issued official postage stamps with his pictures.) But it was still super surprising to find his gay-themed art plastered across food products at the local grocery store. Go, Finland!

After K-Market, I stopped by Lidl on the way back in the hopes of buying a cheap plastic salad bowl — the kitchenette at my place had virtually no utensils or dishes, and nothing suitable for the large salads that I like to make.  Lidl didn’t either.  But this Lidl, unlike the previous examples, was large and spacious and well stocked with a variety of foods, and the mini-Target section didn’t seem so out of place with so much other stuff going on also.

Despite the English caption, I don’t know what this contains. I’m guessing it’s orange juice.

Alas, Lidl had no salad bowls (weirdly, as they seemed to have every nearby kitchen concept *except* that), but I did buy a cheap 8pack of disposable aluminum lasagna trays that were just large enough for my salads, and one of them served in that capacity for my month there. (I left the other 7 as a gift to my successors.)

Later, I tracked down an organic food shop in Helsinki proper… which turned out to be super pricey, so I didn’t buy much. They seemed to be catering to the caricatured Whole Foods shopper, with stuff like hand-hulled bespoke oatmeal and cruelty-free kale.

“Hi, I’m Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Take it from me, walking the Middle Path is thirsty work. And nothing says ‘transcending the material world and the cycle of death and rebirth’ like a can of my cherry-flavored, carbonated water. Buddha Water: re-energize your chakras!”

I figured that K-Market by the convention center was my best bet for groceries, even if it did add about €5 of train fare to every shopping trip.  But then I took one of those double-decker bus tours around Helsinki and saw several other K-Markets scattered around, realized that it was a chain, and started to wonder if there might be one near me.  Google Maps showed me that indeed there was, and only a couple of blocks further away than the grungy market my host had sent me to.  So I hiked over there and found my grocery Mecca:

An actual, proper, irony-free Whole Foods-like establishment. Large, clean, well lit, lots of yummy food. Don’t know why Jussi didn’t give me that as an option to begin with.

And, by the way, if you like hard cider, *this* is the place. I have to assume that the Finns love their cider, because this was a huge selection, larger than their beer shelves.

Not that their beer selection wasn’t decent. ‘Cause it totally was.

I shopped here from this point on.

Non-Grocery Related Things

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Why?” And, “What’s the point of non-grocery related things? Are there weird or clever labels? Is there food-based cultural commentary? No? Then let it go mate, we don’t need to hear it.”  Well tough.  I took pictures, and it would feel like a waste if I didn’t include some of them.  Feel free to skip to the end.

I went into downtown Helsinki maybe 3 times while I was there: the first to take the tour, and the second for my birthday — I really thought I ought to get out that day, at least, and have a bit of lunch — and the third to hit a museum.

The Tour

As I mentioned, I did one of those double-decker bus tours around Helsinki about 1/3 of the way through my stay.  The “City Sightseeing” tour group has great buses and great prerecorded guide info, in every city where I’ve tried them, and I love them for giving me a sense of how everything lays out in a city.  I know that you’re meant to hop-on-hop-off as you try to see everything during your brief stop whereever-it-is, but I usually get on, ride the whole circuit, and rarely get back on afterwards because walking is easy.

I had a great little chat with the ticket seller, an American black guy in his 40s (maybe?) who had a bunch of questions about the L.A. area, because he and his teacher wife were going to be taking a long car ride over Christmas from Seattle to Florida and he wanted tips on where to go while in L.A.. (I plugged the Santa Monica Promenade to him.)  Usually, I sit on the top of these buses and get lots of great pictures.  Unfortunately, it had rained early that morning, and the bus people must have been too worried that it would rain again, or that it would just be too chilly, so they had the roof up on the top deck, making the thing too enclosed to get good pictures.

OMG, the Helsinki scenery is so amazing!

But here are some pics from my times walking around:

Senate Square, where the bus tours start. The big white building is the Helsinki Cathedral (no interior pictures because, honestly, not that special). Also around: the Government Palace; the main building of the University of Helsinki; and the Sederholm House, the oldest building of central Helsinki dating from 1757. Other than the cathedral, don’t ask me which is which. I’m not in Parliament, nor in University, nor hosting a Seder, so it’s a distinction with no difference.

This square is mainly important because just south of it is the brewhouse where I had lunch that day, after the tour, at Bryggeri Helsinki.

The tallest column of a burger I’ve ever had. I think Americans tend to have larger patties, so the whole burger becomes proportionally larger. When your cultural default is a smaller portion of meat, everything else gets narrower to match it and the only direction to build becomes Up.

Bryggeri seems to be a pretty large brewer in this part of the world, and I’ve seen their beers in all of the Finland stores and restaurants and in Oslo also. I kind of wish I was going back to Edinburgh, so I could see if they were common there, also.

FYI, the beer was pretty good.  One of the nice things about traveling is that, outside of Guinness (and the crap beers like Bud), you know they’re going to have very few beers that you know and so you can just ask, “What do you have that’s dark, like a stout or a porter?”  And then they’ll come up with something and look at you like you might say “No”, and instead you reply, “You had me at ‘on tap'”. Then they look confused because their English isn’t really up to the reference, and so you follow it up with a strongly announced, “Yes, that sounds excellent, I’ll have it!” And they smile and bring it to you, and it’s either good or it’s bleh, but either way you’ve tried the new beer and can reassure yourself that you’ve paid due diligence to the exotic nature of your surroundings. (An assurance that will soothe your conscience when you’ve not left your Airbnb room in 3 days because Twitter/Yoga/books/videos/games. “Hey,” you’ll say to yourself, “at least I had that beer, right?!”  And you’ll smile, and nod, and click on another link.)

Helsinki proper is out on a bit of peninsula, and the bus tour took us around much of its coastline.

I was in Finland for most of August; it was often fairly warm (as high as the low 80s!), and there were a fair number of sunny days. This was not one of them.

Mind you, much of the coast was prettier than that, and probably quite nice on a sunny day.

There was a cool outdoor market which, in addition to a bit of produce and a lot of tourist tchotchkes, had some *amazing* fur blankets and clothing and caps and they were soooo soft. I was actually a little tempted by them; if I’d had any real use for superwarm stuff, I might have given in.

A good example of the older style of building, downtown. As I mentioned in the last post, there were a bunch of different, kind of schizophrenic, architectural styles in Helsinki, and they did not go well together. But the bits with just older buildings worked. A bit drab, but at least coherent.

Here’s a mix of styles that work, older on the left, newer on the right, but they fit with each other.

But it starts to degrade a few blocks away: a couple of interesting buildings there on the near left, but bland, faded pastels on industrial facades everywhere else.

And this nearby modern stretch, heading towards the west side of the city, was about as bleak as one could hope for. Granted, the overcast skies didn’t help much. But the overall effect I got from the city was that of a small, older core of buildings, and then a sudden flood of modernism in a compressed, catching-up flood of styles, put up without a coherent planning committee, and in a climate where people didn’t expect to be hanging around outside a lot to enjoy the aesthetics.

That said, they have some pretty nice parks.

“The Best Venezuelan Food In Town.” Granted, some cities have rich and varied ethnic foods traditions. Nonetheless, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this is a *really* low bar.

Break out the sun block, I found the beach! Woo-hoo!

(FYI, this is totally artificial. There’s not a grain of sand anywhere else along this bit of coast.  But, hey, why not?)

Ok, here’s an actually pretty neighborhood, right next to the large park. I immediately flipped and was like, “I could live here, this would be nice.” Sadly, I had to keep going.

I totally found where Dr Strange stays when he’s in Finland.

The Birthday

My birthday, at the end of August, was generally pretty enjoyable: a bit of ESO in the morning, along with catching up on all of the Amazon gift e-mails sent by my ever-kind friends and family, and then heading into town to eat at a place recommended in the WorldCon convention supplements, Zetor, which lured me in on the promise of serving reindeer!  There’s no saying no to the chance to eat reindeer (once you’re past the ages at which Santa brings you gifts, and you have nothing to lose), so Zetor leapt to the front of the queue for where to eat out.

Zetor‘s web site claims that they’re 110% Finnish, and I must confess that only the most blithe optimism persuaded me that their cooking skills exceeded their understanding of mathematics.  Fortunately, my optimism paid off, because the food was quite good. The decor was deliberately agricultural, as you can see from their web site and from a Google Image Search, and their menus were designed like newspapers.

I understand so little of the news these days….

The newspaper was fairly thick, because every couple of pages it changed languages. There were quite a few languages, so I’m guessing they don’t change the menu that often.

I didn’t take a picture of the reindeer dish, because it was basically a few strips of beefy-looking meat served on a bed of reindeer mousse, salad, and bread, and a lot smaller than I was expecting.  It was only after eating that I realized I’d ordered what was meant to be an appetizer.  Oops!  Well, it was yummy — reindeer is like most such herd animals, dark, gamey, and delicious.  I made up for the reduced quantity by ordering a traditional Finnish desert called a Mustikkakukko, basically a bilberry tart in a cup with vanilla ice cream, also yummy.  Combined with a local beer and an Irish Coffee, I left feeling well fortified indeed.  And considerably poorer, to the tune of about $47, a bit much for an appetiser, a tart and a scoop of ice cream, a beer, and an Irish Coffee.

(This turned out to be a bit of a theme in the Nordic Countries: while the cost of various commodities in Finland versus the U.S. may be higher or lower, depending on the thing, overall consumer prices are about 9% higher there, and some things (like eating out, or beer) are considerably higher.  This is not the place to go to make your retirement dollars stretch.  Though, in fairness, neither is L.A…. but I’m not retiring to L.A.. <shudder> Probably I could go to a random town in Finland, one that isn’t the capital, and settle into a neighborhood with very reasonable local restaurants and a Venezuelan food truck and live very modestly and well. But having come from Edinburgh, where I could get a very nice meal for $10-25, seeing pretty much all of my dining choices running in the $25-50 range was a bit disheartening.  Well, that’s all right, there’s always sardines. Oatmeal. Cat Food. Whatever.)

Anyway, putting the lunch bill aside, I walked about for a bit, and then went home to a comfortable evening reading and watching YouTube which, honestly, is about all I ask out of a satisfying day. 🙂

The Church and the Museum

The last day that I went into town, I wanted to hit a couple of places that had been on my list since I arrived, but that I’d never gotten to.  The first was Temppeliaukio Church, the Church in the Rock, a church excavated into a hill in town after WWII.  While they do hold services there, it seems to be primarily used as a tourist attraction (‎€5 a head).

It’s a nice space, although kind of small, especially considering its fame. This photo is about the least crowded the place was while I was there. If it had been built to the originally planned scale, 4 times larger, it would have been quite impressive. As it was, it was nice — especially with the organist playing for most of the time I was there — but a bit overhyped, IMO.

From there, I walked around downtown for a bit, expecting to maybe go back to Zetor and have reindeer as the main course this time, despite the expense. But I passed a place that offered reindeer burgers, and again there’s no saying no to reindeer burgers!

There is, however, saying “Those aren’t on the lunch menu, we won’t serve those until after 2pm.” A bit mind-boggling, to me. How do you serve lunch, and serve reindeer burgers, but not serve reindeer burgers at lunch?!  Well, I was not going to be put off so easily!  By which I mean that I would politely and patiently suffer through whatever nuisance they cared to interject along my path, so long as having said reindeer burger lay at the end.  I had over an hour to wait, so decided to go to the National Museum before lunch instead of after, and ate a snack bar to tide me over until I could return.

This had really only one downside: it was a bright sunny morning as I walked around Helsinki that day:

I did say that there were a bunch of sunny days. Though, rarely when I went out taking pictures. Sorry about that.
¯\ _(ツ)_/¯

This made the idea of sitting out with a beer and a reindeer burger for lunch, on the restaurant’s patio, seem really appealing.  Unfortunately, by the time I got out of the museum, matters had changed:

Aaaand now we’re back to the Helsinki you know and love.

Sigh.

So, I sat inside. The reindeer burger was Ok — in truth, not the awe inspiring experience that I was hoping for, but I still thanked it for its sacrifice. And the beer was good.

The National Museum was cooler than I expected. But before we go in….

I would just like to point out that nearly all of the statues I saw in Helsinki looked like this guy. Very few guys on horses, heroic poses, that sort of thing; just solid, respectable businessmen in suits, looking solid and respectable. I found it a kind of amusing statement about the Finnish temperament. And then I looked up this guy, Kyösti Kallio, and it’s the story of a solid, respectable leader who spent his life working for Finland according to his principles, and died on the day of his resignation, at his farewell ceremony! OMG, that’s really kind of sweet. We need to celebrate more people like that. Go, Finland.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m saying most of the statues were like that, but not all:

In a way, this isn’t *much* different. It’s clearly an homage to industry. Although who thought naked guys swinging hammers at a waist-high anvil was a good idea? It may well be an homage to Worker’s Comp.

Ok, moving on:

This corner attracted my attention: The Happy Jazz Club, next to Storyville. If you were setting a scene for the next Roger Rabbit movie, you could hardly do better.

The Parliament building. Nothing really to say about it; it’s just here because I like the picture, and it’s sunny. 🙂

Yaay, we made it! The National Museum. Bet you thought we’d never get here.

I’m tempted to say, “By the time I got here, I wasn’t in the mood, so I turned around and left.” But, alas, it isn’t true.

The entrance hall dome, painted with scenes from the Kalevala, the Finnish mythological epic. I’ve read a few fragments of that over the years, but I really ought to read more; most of my knowledge of those myths comes from the D&D reference manual, Deities & Demigods. Which, to be sure, was a surprisingly good primer for a lot of mythological traditions, but I think a reasonable person might conclude that there was more to be learned.

(FYI, I was totally going to talk about putting the Kalevala on my Amazon Wish List, in a very unsubtle plug for Christmas gift giving.  But it turns out there’s a fan translation on Amazon for $0.00, with pretty decent reviews, so I carefully looked at my budget, decided that I could afford it if I cut back on my purchases of Unobtainium, and bought it.  If you’re interested, here’s the link.  I don’t know if it will be free forever, but it is at the time of this writing.)

The National Museum covers a pretty good swath of Finnish history, from prehistoric to modern times.  For some reason, they start you in the middle, with medieval church art. ‘Cause everybody loves that, I guess.

A portable altarpiece. Generally kind of cool, although I can’t help but think Christ would be better portrayed with his arms out on the cross, in the traditional manner, instead of, what, crossed behind his head as if he’s just lying on his back relaxing? And the junior Christ-wannabees on each side don’t really help much, IMO. But, hey, maybe that’s just me.

This one’s pretty good — and in color! — but I’m not sure what it represents. Is this like when the mom gets sick, and none of the men in the family have to first clue about how to take care of a sick person?

No. Way. I can’t even. The Circumcision of Christ. Kudos to the artist for choosing an unconventional clip from the Savior’s life, but minus points for what looks like terrible knife technique by the moyel. Not that I’m an expert or anything. But if there’s ever a time you don’t want to screw something up….

“It’s fun to stay at the YMCA!”
Ok, that was my first thought when I saw this. But the caption for this read: “Andrew and Sebastian were popular saints. Andrew was asked to give luck when fishing, and Sebastian protected people against the plague.” Look, I may not understand how the whole “saint” thing works, but I can’t help but think that martyrs, whose main claim to fame was that really crappy things happened to them despite how holy they were, maybe shouldn’t be your go-to guys for good luck. Just sayin’.

Decorated pulpits and a floating ship, looking rather like the First Church of Neverland.

Portrait of the first Reverend Mother to propose the Kwisatz Haderach breeding program, her name now lost to history.

Random collection of stuff someone found in their aunt’s attic.

Moving on to the ancient history section, they had a very large section on the older Finnish cultures. Including a large section on shamanic traditions, probably the only thing that made primitive life bearable.

Well played, Finnish National Museum. Well played indeed.

I wish someone would do a study to figure out how common it is to find swords and armor to be the coolest thing in any museum. Is it just a guy thing? And what percentage of guys? (It can’t be *all* guys, because humans, but it’s all of them *I* know.) And what percentage of women? I should probably do a survey myself, just of the people I know. (“Be the change” surely applies to surveys about museum exhibits as much as it does any other topic.)

Not Swords.

Not swords, but still cool. They had these little viewfinders set up, and when you looked through them you’d see various scenes. This one was in motion, a mammoth moving around outside the window, and looking in at you. Must be super cool for kids — and it was pretty cool even for this adult.

The had a pretty huge modern photographic exhibit, covering Finnish history from the invention of photography to the present day.  Including a few things I really was not expecting.

This room in the museum displays live photos from Instagram that have been tagged with #Finland2117, unfiltered as far as I can tell. Use at your own risk.

The regular, and much larger, non-live part of the exhibit was more fascinating than most photographic exhibits I’ve seen, covering a large segment of the Finnish 20th century, with a fair emphasis on social issues and progress.

Finland’s early experiments at behavior modification were ultimately deemed unsuccessful, and were abandoned.

They also had a small room dedicated to arctic cultures, like the Inuit, Lapps, and Sami people, with a bit of traditional clothing, a canoe, artifacts, etc. (BTW, the caption is in Finnish, Swedish, and English. Swedish is the 2nd official language of Finland, thanks to the Swedes having run Finland for a few centuries and established the early governmental structures.)

And that was pretty much it for museum day. 🙂

My Neighborhood

I’d be remiss not to mention that my neighborhood, only a few blocks from the train station, was a very pretty, green, quiet, spread out bit of suburb, with plenty of parks and a river through it.  It would be hard to find a more pleasant environment.

The house. There’s a similar but smaller house just over my left shoulder, where Jussi’s ex and his daughter live (in addition to 2 or 3 kids from another wife, and Anna’s prior marriage kid, all of whom were grown up and living elsewhere). Apparently, all the current and former spouses are in the “Yeah, the marriage thing didn’t work, but doesn’t it make more sense for us all to stay friends?” mind set, which is nice. Jussi was at great pains to point out that there wasn’t any polyamory going on, which honestly probably wouldn’t have occurred to me.)

A river ran nearby (I thought, from the listing, that it ran past the house, but it doesn’t), and there’s a very long park that runs along it, with a little artificial sand beach, and extensive manicured grounds, and trails, and tall trees, and a skate park. I walked north along this for close to an hour and never saw the end of it (though it looked more like farming country than park proper by the end).

That’s really all I wanted to say about it. If I could have fit those two photos in anyplace else, I probably would have.  But the narrative flow forbade it, so here we are.

A Weird Endpiece

A few days before I was scheduled to leave Helsinki — I think it was Wednesday, before my Saturday, Sept 9th, departure, I had a weird run-in with one of the other guests.  There was a Japanese woman staying in the room next to the kitchenette, whom I’d been introduced to on my first day. My host Jussi said that she’d stayed with them several times before, and was learning Finnish.  She was maybe early-30s, stocky, not really attractive but of course that hardly matters; she seemed nice enough when I was introduced — not, like, super friendly or anything, but politely neutral.  She’d draped a sort of curtain over her doorway, which seemed to surprise Jussi, but our conversation was short and after that, I rarely saw her.  I could hear her occasionally.  Her room was right next to mine, and while not much sound came through, the bathroom, shower room, and kitchenette were all in a little segment of corner hallway between her room and mine.

She ran on a *much* later schedule than I did, and I’d sometimes get up to use the restroom in the midnight-3am time frame and see her light on, or hear her in the kitchen. (I think it woke me up once, but I generally didn’t notice.)  And then she’d apparently be asleep until close to noon, so she was out of sync with everyone’s schedule, not just mine. I tried to minimize any noise I made before noon, but I could hear noise from those common facilities in my room, and her room was even closer.

(Side note: we had a Japanese-American woman in one of the other rooms for a time. And one evening I notice that the floor towel in the shower room, used as a bath mat, was quite soaked and was hanging up to dry.  I didn’t think much of it, but then the next morning I took my shower, opened the shower door, and discovered that the shower room floor was flooded, filling up the slightly-sloped floor with water reaching almost to the outer door.  I had the usual panicky thoughts, but with the water turned off the floor was slowly draining back under the shower stall.  So, knowing that it would be dry soon, I left it to drain, and sent a message to the host warning him about the problem.  He soon came up and did something to the shower, and later thanked me for the warning and told me it was something that happened occasionally.  He called it “Japanese girl problem”; a mass of long black hair clogging the drain down in the slightly odd shower drain connections.  If the water didn’t overflow the shower room, it would drain out Ok, but a couple of times it had reached the door and flowed out onto the hall floor and down through the walls and become a huge problem, so he appreciated my having caught it and warned him. After that, I figured out how to pull out the odd-but-easily-removable drain mechanism, and so every morning I’d clean the drain of its accumulation of long black hairs before I took my own shower.  It was kind of disgusting, but it avoided the problem and Jussi appreciated my doing it, so PR win!)

So, the Wednesday morning before I leave, I’m up early, as usual, and shower, and I’m making breakfast in the kitchenette (with the door closed, to reduce sound), when she opens it to tell me, very bluntly, “The shower make noise. The kitchen… make noise. Don’t make noise.”  I smiled politely and acknowledged her statements, thinking a flood of thoughts at once mostly involving, “There’s really very little that I can productively respond with here.”  I’m not arguing about subjective noise impressions with a woman who’s got a head of steam up and has limited English.  It would be one thing if I was being too noisy while making breakfast in the kitchenette — I always tried to be quiet, but maybe I’m doing something wrong? But the shower? I’m not playing the drums in there, or using a bath towel made out of loose clanking metal.  Water falling from a height is really all that’s going on, and if that’s too noisy for her… I’m not sure I can help her.  I’d feel guilty about it being early, but she’s up sometimes until 3am, and sleeps sometimes until noon: the whole of the morning is early for her.  My options are kind of limited, there.  And I’m not much farther from those facilities than she is, and have been awakened a few times by noises from her and other guests using them.  That’s how it works, and it’s why I have earplugs and white noise apps.  Shared space and all.  Hey, I’m cleaning your hair out of the drain!  Welcome to Airbnb.

So, I just acknowledged her, and she stepped back into her room and closed the door.  I finished making breakfast as quietly as possible, and then spent the morning trying to figure out how to deal with it. (And how to get ahead of the issue with my hosts, in case she complained to them. Reputation management is important with Airbnb, after all.)   This was the day I was going into the city, to see the church and the museum, and so I did that, and slowly let go of the sort of mental churning around the problem.  And I thought of maybe a few things I could do to reduce the noise, like making most of the breakfast in my room — inconvenient, but I’m willing to try to help out. (“Since she asked so nicely,” my mind said to me, sarcastically.)  And maybe I could even reduce the shower noise, by focusing on keeping the water hitting my body and running down it, and thus never falling the full height from the shower head to the floor.  I mean, noise from the facilities *is* part and parcel of a shared space, but I’ll do what I can.

Then, after I got back home that afternoon, I heard one of my hosts moving around downstairs and went down and had a chat with Jussi, asking how the book was going (his editors liked the part he’d completed, and he was moving on to writing the successive parts, as well as doing some review work on other people’s books), hitting a couple of topics about my upcoming departure (early morning Saturday, where do I leave the keys, etc), and then mentioning the morning’s incident.  Jussi started to look kind of uncomfortable, like he thought this was about to be a Problem that he’d have to handle us both about.  But I made a point of sounding agreeable and reassuring, saying that I wasn’t sure how much I could do given our huge schedule difference and her sleeping until noon, but that I could maybe reduce breakfast noise by doing most of it in my room instead, and while I wasn’t sure how to handle the shower noise, maybe he had suggestions for any of this?  I could see him relax, and as we talked he mentioned that she’d stayed here several times before, and kept requesting the same room next to the kitchen and shower, so she should know about the noise. And if she had problems she could always ask to be moved to another room.  And, really, I was leaving in a couple of days anyway… so I should just ignore her, and pay no attention.  “Yes!”, I cried, internally.  That’s the end game you hope for: the host makes it clear he doesn’t think it’s your fault, and hence doesn’t leave you a bad review.  But when he said I should ignore her, I repeated that there were some things I might be able to do, and I’d try my best, and then we moved on to other topics and had a very friendly chat for a while afterwards.  And a couple of days later, I brought down a couple of things that I wasn’t taking with me and asked Anna if she could use them, and she was appreciative and I got a very friendly vibe from her. So it all worked out in the end.

But, wow, my next couple of mornings were a study in paranoia.  “Going into the shower, I can hear her snoring. Now hyper-aware of every movement and water splash. Leaving shower, she’s no longer snoring. Is she awake, or did she just stop snoring? No way to know unless she comes out….”  I never saw her again.  Gosh. Darn.

Leaving

Saturday morning, my flight out was at 7:50am.  I packed up pretty much *everything* the night before, and planned to skip breakfast, to minimize my packing up noise in the morning.  And then I woke up about 1/2 an hour before my 4am alarm, showered, did the last little bit of packing, and made my way to the train station in time to catch the train before my target train — which was particularly helpful because there was a train delay that cost about 15-20 minutes.  But being able to catch the earlier train avoided any inconvenience.  This could have been a very dreary early morning ride, but fortunately the train was livelier than expected, filled with very late night party goers, coming home in varying states of drunken revelry from their respective Friday nights. (Including a mixed race group of early 20-somethings, talking loudly in Finnish with a burst of laughter and an “Oh my god!”)  So the ride was more entertaining than tired and dreary, and the departure was pleasant, and there was no way for me to lose another jacket.  So, winning! 🙂

The End

As promised, if you skipped to the end (and even if you didn’t, because I’m generous), here’s some more pictures of groceries. You’re welcome.

FIN

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Land O’Lakes

As I start this, I am finishing up my Helsinki, Finland, stay, where I’ve been from August 8th to September 9th.  It’s Thursday, I leave early Saturday morning, and anticipate a good 4-5 hours of sitting in the airport in Olso, Norway, waiting until I can go to my new place and check in.  So, if I don’t finish this before I leave Helsinki, I expect I’ll finish it soon after.

And now it’s Wednesday, the 13th, I’m in Oslo, Norway, and just finishing up this entry.  Time, huh?  Ain’t that somethin’?

I could blather on a bit about my current status, but at the end of the last blog I was leaving Croydon, England.  So, let’s just pick up from there and get on with it, shall we?  (I’ll take your silence as consent.)

Tuesday, August 8th — Arriving

Let’s see… what was my last line of that blog: “I got a nice window seat, folded my jacket behind me for lumbar support, and after a modest delay we were off to Finland!”

Did you spot the foreshadowing?  I’ll give you a clue: when you put something behind you, it’s remarkably easy to forget it exists.

You see it now, don’t you.  That’s right.  I’ve lost yet another jacket in transit.  Sigh.

Unlike the fuzzy trekking jacket I lost when leaving Edinburgh a year ago May, which I’m moderately sure was stolen, this loss was entirely my fault.  This was the remaining other half of my cool-weather ensemble, the browish/orangey windbreakery coat that I’d expected to sometimes need to wear over the trekking jacket and instead had been wearing on its own for the last year+.  When I don’t need to wear it for warmth, and if my bags are particularly full, I end up just carrying it, often tucked through the shoulder straps of my large pack and dangling at elbow-level.  This was what I was doing through Gatwick airport, and then I got on the plane, put my big pack overhead, the smaller one under the seat, and folded the jacket behind me to give better back support.

Cut to, what, 3 weeks later?  When I’m having my morning shower and for some reason the jacket ended up in my mind (maybe I was thinking about the weather?) and it crossed my mind that I wasn’t quite sure where I’d put it. Hanging in the closet? I… don’t think so. Folded in my pack? Um… no….  Where…?  I knew, even before I stepped out of the shower, exactly what had happened. Folded it behind me in the plane seat, enjoyed my now-more-comfortable chair for the 3 hour plane trip, landed in Helsinki, pulled my small pack on before rising to grab the large pack from the overhead, and left the plane with never a backward glance at my chair.

Sigh. Again.

I contacted Norwegian Air Shuttle to see if there was any chance they might still have it, and they directed me to the Helsinki Airport Lost and Found, which contracts out to some lost-and-found service, which had a website, where I put in a search request, at the cost of €5 (~$5.36).  I haven’t heard back yet, and don’t really expect to.  It’s been too long.

I should have known.  I spent that whole trip marveling at how smoothly and easily everything was going, from Airbnb door to Airbnb door the best trip ever, yada yada. Naturally, something had to go wrong, but it took me 3 weeks to learn what that something had been.  Still, if bad things have to happen invisibly to be discovered later, it could be a lot worse than an $80 jacket.

Like, as a totally random hypothetical, it *could* be a $4,600 tax bill added onto my 2015 taxes, apparently because my fancy financial services group reported income to the IRS that they didn’t tell *me* about, and apparently the IRS have only now figured it out.  Thanks fancy financial services guys.  And then the IRS sends me that notice mid-July, bill due mid-August, and it doesn’t reach my sister for her to tell me about until September 6th.  So, now I have a late IRS bill, for about 1/6 of my annual max budget, which I was already running over thanks to Europe being super expensive. Yay.

I’m thinking next year is *not* going to be a tour of the U.S.. It’s going to be to some place waaaay cheaper, either back to Asia or to Central America — Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, all of which come highly recommended as retirement destinations.  Did you know that Nicaragua is in the top-20 happiest countries?  Turns out, no more dictators and death squads!  In spite of that loss, I’m sure there’s still something for tourists to do — I won’t do it, of course, but it’s good to know it will be there for me to ignore.  (Having a rich supply of appealing things that I won’t do is a sure sign of a robust economy.)   BTW, the U.S. has dropped from 13 to 14 on that list in the last year — no way to know why, nope, no way at all — so I can clearly be nearly as happy in Nicaragua as I can in the U.S., but much less expensively.  That seems very appealing right now: live cheaply for a couple of years, come in under budget again, and then do the U.S. maybe in 2020, in time for the next election?    🙂

Anyway, it seems that I’ve gone off on a tangent.  Quelle surprise.

Back On Track

Back when I still had my jacket, this was how the world looked:

Possible captions:
(A) Land O’Lakes
(B) In Plane View
(C) A View With A Jacket

In case it looks like there’s a lot of water out there, there’s a good reason: there’s a lot of water out there.  Finland is know for having a lot of lakes.  In fact, the only 2 stories I’ve read that featured Finland both prominently involved Finnish lake houses (Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and a short story that I read recently that I quite enjoyed but have literally no hope of remembering the author or the title of).  And the first weekend I was here, my hosts left to go to his parent’s lake house.  It’s like having a really big door in L.A.: you’re no one here unless you have a lake house.

But of the many things that Finland is known for, perhaps chief among them is it’s geographical location, as illustrated below:

Stuck between Sweden and Russia, and very much regretting the arrangement.

Finland is considered one of the Nordic Countries, although not actually part of Scandinavia (which are Norway, Sweden, and Denmark).  The current Finnish people are the same ones who first migrated there around 9000 BCE, in what a Finnish essayist I read claimed was the first of a long series of terrible decisions by his ancestors.  It’s certainly true that it’s cold for a lot of the year, and pretty damp thanks to all of the water, and the overcast days (of which there were many during my stay) are kind of dreary.  But it was also super lush and green and fairly cool for August, and I quite liked the weather.  Of course, the essayist was also referring to rather a lot of debatable history, as Finland tried to tack between Sweden, Germany, and Russia, often ruled over by one or the other.  They had their own streak of nationalism leading up to WWII; curiously, because the Finns are a genetically coherent ethnic group, their nationalist/racist movements look down on Swedes as much as they do on anyone else, leading to a weird reversal: a group of Teutonic people not being considered “pure” enough.

Anyway, Finland absorbed a lot of people and culture from the Swedes (the anti-Swede nationalists are a fringe group), while treating Russia with all of the resentful respect you’d give to a nearby den of rabid bears.  During the Cold War, Finland was famous for firmly adopting a neutral position between the superpowers (largely out of worry about antagonizing Russia), giving them a rather privileged status in international relations.  They made a considerable effort to develop out of the agricultural backwater that they’d been languishing in, did fairly well for a time, and now are struggling with a bit of a lagging economy.  But they have a lot of progressive social programs, and their educational system is world-famous.  (Which has the side effect that their kids grow up to be very able graduates who then leave for other European countries to get better jobs.)  But at least they speak excellent English which, let’s be real, is the important part.

BTW, I don’t mean that English is the national language of Finland, just in case there was any confusion.  That’s Finnish, an etymologically unique tongue that has the liquid sound of Portuguese and at least as many syllables and probably-unnecessary L’s as Welsh.

(I know, I’m giving an example of Welsh to illustrate Finnish, but it’s funny!  I also like the very subtle self-satisfied look of the weatherman, who knows he nailed it, is pretty stoked about it, but still plays it cool.  Good job, mate!)

Finnish also does not have articles (“a”, “the”), it has 15 grammatical cases (but no future case), and does not distinguish grammatically between male and female, even in personal pronouns — which may be why Finland was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote, and to have a female president.  The language has a lot of other quirks too numerous to list, and is considered one of the more complex for non-native speakers to learn — not at the level of Japanese, but close.

Anyway, on that map above, the capital, Helsinki, is marked by a star on the southern tip of the country and marked by architecture that can’t decide if it’s 18th century European, cinder-block Bauhaus, funky retro-60s, or glass-and-steel modern, and none of it felt like it fit well together. That, plus the economic strain on the country, may have been why I never felt quite comfortable there.  The landscape was beautiful, but the city felt, well, awkward and disjointed; the people were friendly, but kind of distant.  At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I’m unlikely to return.

Of course, those impressions were as yet unknown to me, as I boarded the metro train from the airport.  30 minutes took me to my neighborhood, and a 10 minute walk got me to my home for the month, here.  BTW, the Airbnb listing describes this as a “luxurious” room. It’s a nice room, to be sure, and quite comfortable.  For “luxurious”, though, I really need something more, like a more comfortable bed (it was perfectly fine, but nothing special), sliding closet doors that I don’t have to wrestle back onto their tracks myself, a fancier desk chair with better lumbar support, a fridge, tea kettle, and coffee machine in the room, and maybe an ensuite bath with a jacuzzi tub.  Oh, and a balcony.  “Luxury” really ought to mean more than “comfortable middle class bedroom”, which is what this was.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked the room.  It’s just the adjective that I dispute.

Not that I got to see the room immediately. When I booked the place, the primary host Jussi (the husband in the Jussi and Anna couple) warned me that this room was taken for the first few days of my proposed stay, but that if I was willing to bed down in the office for a few days then I could move in to my real room when it freed up. I said that would be fine, so he installed me in the office first, which was pretty nice: a large corner room with a huge desk and wall-to-wall windows filling the corner walls and trees all around.  Then, 2 days later, he moved me into a freed-up guest room, smaller, but still well windowed.  Then, 3 days later, I was in my intended room, the smallest of the 3.  All of that was fine, but there were some oddnesses about the place.  The listing used to have pictures of what appeared to be a deck, and a passing river, and lots of people sitting at a porch table outside the kitchen, and the whole thing seemed like a long-running BnB with lots of guests and an active community life, which seemed like an appealing change of pace for me.

Those pictures seem to be gone from the listing now.  The river is blocks away, the deck is still there (though it doesn’t have the view implied by the river pictures), the guests (myself included) were all either in their rooms with the doors closed or elsewhere, and Jussi later told me that he and Anna had encouraged that so that they could get their house back.  With their kids (from a few prior marriages) grown, they just rented out the upstairs room so as not to feel guilty about wasting the space (I’m sure the cash didn’t hurt either), but they really wanted to still be able to live their own lives downstairs.   So it wasn’t so much a big friendly community BnB, as much as it was a friendly-but-quiet, isolated space.  Which was fine, but not what I was expecting. (As is often the case.)

Anyway, I did have a few chats with Jussi, and at least one with Anna.  She was a library district manager, he was a retired IT manager and working on a book which (at the time of my arrival) was due at the publisher in a few days.  When I arrived, Jussi and I had a nice chat as he showed me around, but he had his book to work on and I did start to get the “I’ve really talked as long as I can” vibe pretty quickly, and I made a point of letting him go.  I’m better than some might expect at sensing that vibe, but very poor at figuring out how to end the conversation once I’ve sensed it.  With the result that we can be talking for several minutes while my mind is casting around for “How do I release this person gracefully?”  I’ve been testing, “Well, I’ve probably detained you as long as I should” language, and initial trials have been fairly successful.  But I’m always worried that they’ll think I’m ditching them, when in fact I’m just trying to free them before their vibe pushes towards “desperate”.

Before I released him, Jussi did tell me where a nearby grocery store was — kind of uncomfortably, as if it was an unusual question that he wasn’t sure how to answer.  So I walked there, back past the metro line and a few blocks more, to a little mini-mall with a weird, low-end, slightly dingy little grocery that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to return to.  I discovered later that there was a *much* better one just 3 blocks further away, like a smallish Whole Foods, but I got enough groceries at the dingy place to hold me for a couple of days and that would do.  I wasn’t sure how the whole “eating” thing was going to go here, anyway: the kitchenette on the guest room floor was a tiny, barely equipped closet with a small fridge and I wasn’t sure I was going to have any space of my own in that fridge for salad fixings.   But there turned out to be a bit of unused space, so within a couple of days I’d packed it with my food and all was well with the world.

In theory, I could have gone to the convention center on the day I arrived, and registered for WorldCon early.  But that seemed unnecessary, so I settled in for the evening, ate, watched YouTube, and that was it for Day 1.

WorldCon 75

So, The 75th World Science Fiction Convention ran from Wednesday, August 9th, though Sunday, August 13th, at the Messukeskus Convention Center, about 2 train stops away from me. I think WorldCons used to alternate, a year in the U.S., then the next year in another country.  That seems to have changed to a more general bidding process and I’m not sure there’s any real pattern to it now.  But this year was Finland, next year will be San Jose, California, and the leading contender for 2019 seems to be Dublin.  New Zealand was also bidding, although possibly for 2020 (I think it was 2020, but I don’t remember clearly).  Members vote for the next site, and I’d have gladly voted for New Zealand, to have the excuse to go there.  But they were charging €30 just to cast your vote, and it hardly seemed worth it.

Since I the days when I was a geeky, awkward teenager, I’ve been to many conventions, including SciFi, Comics, Anime, New Age, and Film Festival, and they all seem to divide up into 4 types of experience:

  1. Staff — Steadily escalating frantic planning before hand, unremitting action during, lots of interaction with other staff, slightly numb eating together after its all over. If you’re disciplined about scheduling your own time, maybe you get to see a little content here and there between your duties.
  2. Professional — A mysterious experience that I have never been privy to, that involves very little “official” convention content, except when you’re a member of a panel, but lots of socialization with other professionals, usually in bars.
  3. Groups — Going with a bunch of friends is fun. You go to movies and panels together, you enjoy and/or mock the same content, eat and drink together during and after the day’s events, and generally have an extended party.
  4. Solo — The most alone you can be short of offending a prison guard and getting chucked into Solitary.  You drift like a ghost from panel to panel, trying to decide if the one you’re in was really the right choice, or if you should just be sitting in the screening room in the dark where at least you wouldn’t see (a) all the other people that surely *must* be more into this topic than you are, or (b) those who are clearly doing the fun Group thing.  In between, you eat the snacks you’ve brought with you or pay for overpriced convention food, which you eat at a table alone like the kid who was never in any of the lunch cliques at school.  Then you come back the next day and do it again, because you paid $95 for these tickets and by gods you’re not wasting them!  But hey, at least everyone around you smells really good. Oh, wait….

I’ve had experiences 1, 3, and 4, and I’ve noticed that 1-3 all involve you existing in your own subworld within the convention where you deal almost exclusively with your own people.  Whereas 4 involves the continuous reminder, over days of convention time, that everyone else has their own community except you.  Sucker!

I confess, I’d kind of forgotten the solo convention experience.  Also, the last SF convention I attended was back in college when everything was a novelty and the world was young. Now, I think I’m concluding that SF conventions are a bit more prone to having dreary panels than the anime or comic conventions that I’ve been to more recently.  I’m not sure why this is, but I have 3 theories.  The first is that the age group skews a bit older: there are plenty of folks in their teens and 20s, but I’d say the average age of the attendees was in the 30s, and there’s just a naive exuberance that gets lost as the age range moves up and everyone thinks they should be Adults.  The second is that SF people are more convinced that they have a Serious Literary Endeavor, one that also has Science!, which is Very Important And Superior, and so the topics are drier and are discussed more seriously, and the life is slowly sucked out of the room.  My third theory is that anime and comics are both visual media with lots of bright, primary colors: they’re just innately more enthusiastic subject matters.

Who would have thought that a presentation on gravitational wave detectors could be boring? Come on, guys!

I’m not saying that everyone was dull and dry.  At one physics panel I was in, a panelist made a great joke about non-falsifiability of proofs that went over like gangbusters in that room, and that was the moment that I *most* felt, “I’m with my true people.”  But it cannot be denied that, overall, it skewed dull-ward, and I spent several panels playing backgammon on my iPhone so that I could pay better attention — years of mandatory company meetings have taught me that a mindless game is a great way to distract the part of my brain that would otherwise wander, daydream, and then nod off.  I listen better when I’m playing than when I’m just sitting and staring at the speakers and gradually drifting off. #protip

While some of the panels were hideously dull, there were rather a lot of panels, often panels that I was interested in up that were scheduled up against each, requiring Hard Choices.  Do I see “Crackpot Archeology in Scandinavia”, “Make the Most of Your First WorldCon”, or “Nordic SF/F Now” — I have to choose, because they’re all Wednesday 2-3pm!  Do I go to “Obsolete Science Ideas”, or “Alternate Realities – 1” — and if I skip “Alternate Realities – 1” will I enjoy “Alternate Realities – 2” as much, or always wonder what my life would have been like if I’d chosen “- 1” instead?  They’re just aren’t any good answers.

Some things that you think will be entertaining really aren’t.  I thought “Asexuality in SF” would be interesting, but I have rarely heard a sex-related topic discussed as lifelessly.  Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised: the topic is basically “People lacking a type of passion”, so it makes sense that the discussion should mimic the topic.  I did almost get into a Twitter argument about it, though, so that was exciting.  I posted my amused reaction to the panel on Twitter, and some random person leapt on it like they were itching for a fight:

I started off thinking that they were a bit slow, to not be getting the intrinsic humor of the statement.  Then, with their next reply, I realized they were walking around with a big defensive chip on their shoulder, and got very excited that maybe I was going to be in one of those Twitter pile-ons, where a bunch of randos get all upset over something you’ve said that’s fairly innocuous, and you have to deal with them flooding you with antagonistic comments.  I’ve seen those in action, but never been the target!  But, no, just one rando, soon dealt with.  My own fault, really.  I could have baited her more, and drawn her out, and maybe gotten some mileage out of it. But I just don’t have that sort of temperament.  Sigh.  Yet another wasted opportunity.

There were a couple of highlight panels: the Remembering Tanith Lee panel was cool.  She was one of my grandmother’s favorite SF authors, who died a couple of years back; she wrote a ton of books, and was extremely well regarded, but was never a huge seller.  The panelists had all known her in varying capacities, and had a bunch of stories about her, and that was pretty neat.  And there was a good science panel on habitable worlds, and what sort of variations of life might exist in more  extreme environments.  And in a few panels I took a bunch of notes of future books to read, and SciFi-themed anime to watch, so that was good.

There was a panel on the Kalevala, Finland’s mythological epic, that was quite good, presented in the context of the creators working on a multimedia adaptation of the epic, with a comic in progress and also a game and a movie planned.  This looked pretty interesting: it promises to be a kind of SF flavored adaptation, treating the Kalevala much as Zelazny’s Lord of Light or Grant Morrison’s 18 Days treated Hindu/Buddhist mythology.  The director was off to the side of that panel, mostly involved in changing slides while the comics creators did the talking.  He was the spitting image of a blonde Clark Kent, all glasses and blandly-attractive face and unassuming posture laid over a strapping frame that we were somehow not supposed to notice because “Superman doesn’t wear glasses so it can’t be him!”

Of course, there are *other* things to do at conventions besides panels.  The Dealer Room is usually a big deal, where you can buy all sorts of stuff associated with your favorite shows, books, or memes.  Of course, I don’t buy physical things anymore, so Dealer Rooms are of limited use to me now, but they’re fun to wander through.  Sadly, a scifi convention in Finland does not have a large population of local geek retailers to draw from, so the dealer room was not huge.

That said, it was not without things I totally *would* have bought, if I wasn’t living out of my backpack:

My kind of deity.

I believe this is from the TV show Vikings. They had a t-shirt too, which I would not really have bought even if I could carry it, as walking around with “Fuck Calm” on my chest isn’t really my style. Still, I heartily approve of the sentiment.

There’s also the screening room.  Big conventions often have 2 or 3 such rooms, and media conventions (like anime cons) have 4 to 6.  This had 1, and it wasn’t huge, but I spent some of the happiest hours there, watching often very good short films and generally enjoying not having to cue for seats in over-crowded panels.

There’s also author/creator signings, and panels, and the like. I did end up in a Charlie Stross reading from his next upcoming Laundry Files novel (an entertaining blend of Lovecraftian horror, spy thriller, and office-cubicle dystopia), and that was mildly amusing.  I don’t have anything to really get signed — Amazon should really add a signing feature to the Kindle and Kindle apps, where authors could sign the screen with their finger or stylus and Amazon uploads it to your account and keeps it with your copy of the book.  How cool would that be?!  (Super cool, that’s how cool.)  I skipped the George R.R. Martin panels, but he was a few feet away from me in the registration line when I arrived, so that was entertaining. I could have sworn that I had a picture of that… but whatever.  A Google Image Search for “George R R Martin standing in a line” will give you largely the same effect. 🙂

There were a couple of musical thingies going on: a goth music session and something else that I don’t recall, but they were at night. Also, I didn’t care.  And then there were the Hugos!

The Hugo Awards

The Hugos, as I’ve mentioned in prior posts, are science fiction’s Oscars.  There are other awards, like the Nebulas, and the Locus Awards, and the like, and some of them can claim to be more meritorious, but the Hugos are the ones that people know, when they know about such things at all.

The Hugo nominees and winners are picked by attending members: if you buy a ticket to the convention, you get to participate in both phases.  By the time I bought my ticket, the nominees were already out, and I was surprised to find that I’d already read a fair number of the nominees, books like All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, and novellas like The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway.  Or movies I’d seen, like Arrival, Deadpool, and Rogue One.  Still, *most* of the nominees I had not read; thankfully, like the Oscars, voting members get packets with the nominees, so they can read and judge and vote (hopefully) intelligently (on a ranking of 1-6 in each category).

Mind you, not everyone votes intelligently.  This would go without saying if it weren’t for a couple of groups of small minded people known (and self-named) collectively as Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies.  (The Hugos wiki entry discusses these groups a bit.)  These are folks who seem to think that Science Fiction and Fantasy should be all about Strong Aryan Men who beat Evil with Big Swords or Ray Guns, and that SF/F used to be about that and none of this pansy Emotion, or Female Heroes, or Political Commentary, or Queers, or Multi-Culturalism.  Never mind that SF has always been about those things, going back to H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, continuing through Star Trek and Dragonriders of Pern and The Left Hand of Darkness and Downbelow Station and so on, straight on up to present day.  The last 3-4 years of Hugos have been a bit turbulent, with groups of these people trying to game the system by voting in massed blocks for authors and works that they think fit their agenda — in a weird foreshadowing of the broader, modern political scene of resurgent nationalism/etc.  The mass voting block method worked a bit, in their first couple of tries, and they got some nominees into the lists that did pretty well, or managed to fill a couple of categories with only their nominees. (While exhibiting all of the good behavior and class that you’d find at a Trump rally.)

Unfortunately, for them, The Hugos have a No Award category, that you can vote for if you think none of the nominees are deserving enough, and Puppy nominees have been losing to No Award almost exclusively.  That, plus some voting-rule tweaks have made gaming the system much harder, and in the 2017 voting results, every Puppy candidate fell below No Award in the rankings.  And the major winning authors were almost exclusively women and people of color, writing largely Ray-Gun-Free books.  (Yaay us!)  So the Puppies’ day looks to have come and gone.

(BTW, the best line I heard about those deluded reactionaries came in one of the WorldCon panels: “There were more brown people in medieval Europe than there were potatoes, and yet no one gets upset if your fantasy novel includes potatoes.”  Nice.)

Hugo politics aside, while I was in Edinburgh, I spent rather a lot of time reading through as much of the nominee list as I could — which was quite a lot, really, and for the most part it was all wonderful.  A huge batch of very entertaining books, stories, graphic novels, and the like, all included in the $95 ticket price.  The timetable involved made some of it feel a bit like homework, but by and large it was all just riveting science fiction and fantasy, and left me with a lot of notes for future reading and new authors to pursue further.

I did my best to read everything and vote intelligently…  but sometimes I had to throw up my hands and let a category go.  Like Best Editor Short Form: the packets for the nominees had selections reaching to thousands of pages of stories that they’d edited in the last year.  Even if I read them all — and I did *not* have time to do that — how would I know what was to the original writer’s credit, and how much was due to the editor?  Most of the great writers I know speak glowingly of the benefits of a good editor, so I don’t doubt the editor’s contribution to the finished text.  But as a reader trying to judge what that contribution to the text was…. it’s like watching a movie and trying to guess if you don’t like an actor’s performance because they were bad at their craft, or because the dialog they were given was bad and/or intrinsically hard to deliver well, or because they’re being given bad direction.  I’m sure there are people who can judge those things well, but I am not one of them.  So I left one Editor category blank, and the other I ranked as best I could simply so that I could cast a vote for the Puppy guy to be below No Award, because I was determined that Bad Behavior Should Not Be Rewarded.

(I did, by the way, read the Puppy nominee for Short Story.  I knew of the author and his rather horrific views on a variety of things, but I wanted to be fair — maybe it was well written?  Talent and virtue are hardly married to each other.  In this case, both were absent.  It. Was. Terrible.  Amazingly so, considering how good the other nominees were.  Like, even the ones I hadn’t been wild about were generally well written, just not written to my taste.  This wasn’t written to any sane person’s taste, being an overdrawn thinly veiled metaphor about political correctness that beat its point into the ground in some of the most painful prose I’ve read in decades.  If I *wanted* a story to prove my own virtuous commitment to giving a suspect author a fair shake, I could hardly have asked for better. I felt truly ennobled by my effort.  I hope to never again be so ennobled.)

I left the Fanzine category blank, because I just ran out of time to read the samples.  I left the Best Dramatic Presention, Short Form blank too — TV series episodes, basically — because I hadn’t seen any of them and couldn’t see searching out and watching a single episode out of context and being able to judge its merits properly.

Some things I hadn’t read or watched, but felt I could make an educated judgement about.  Hidden Figures is a good example, a movie about the black women who were critical in making the moon landing happen.  I’m perfectly prepared to believe it’s a great movie, but it’s an historical drama and not really Science Fiction. So I placed it below No Award.  There were podcasts that I hadn’t listened to, but the subject matter of one sounded more interesting than the subject matter of another, so I could rank my preferences.  I’d read neither Ursula K LeGuin’s Words Are My Matter, nor The Geek Feminist Revolution, but I can guarantee that I’ll like the former more than the latter. I approve of the latter, of course, but to read a documentary book about it sounds unbearably tedious.

“Here’s a good thing!”
“Awesome. I’m glad it exists. 🙂 ”
“Let me tell you all the details!”
“Gosh, I’m not sure I have time for that.”
“But it’s wonderful, let me persuade you!”
“Not necessary, I agree with you already. Totally.”
“But I want to tell you about it. I have slides!”

(Yes, I know there are people who enjoyed the book — Jenni 👀 — and I rejoice in their happiness.)

In case you’re interested, here’s a link to the Google Docs spreadsheet I built to keep track of the nominees and my rankings as I read through them.  After the convention, I went through and added the actual awards results to the list, all ranked 1-6 (or 1-7, when No Award mattered).  It was comforting to see that, while my number 1 picks didn’t win most of the time, most of my top picks matched most of the final top ranks.  (The notable exception was the Best Novel winner, where Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate won despite being my 5th place pick. I do believe that it was probably that good, she’s a great author. But it’s the 2nd book in a series that I hadn’t read, so I really couldn’t read it, and I placed it below other good books that I had read.)  But most of my best picks placing well is all that my delicate sense of self-worth really needs to get by on, so I’m taking the whole thing as a win.

BTW, I didn’t go to the actual awards show.  It was at night, and I couldn’t see sitting through the whole thing when most of the presentation would end up online where I could watch it at my convenience, AND the results would be summarized for me the next day if I were patient enough. Which I am.

A Book

I really feel as though I ought to review at least 1 thing from the exhaustive Hugo reading list, but it’s kind of hard to pick from all of that great material.  I’m choosing to go with Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, my pick for Best Novel (as I write this, $5.24 for the Kindle edition on Amazon).

It’s set in a far future, interstellar empire where the technology is largely based on consensual reality: how people think about the universe is leveraged to alter physical laws.  As a consequence, the conflicts involve changing people’s viewpoints about common assumptions — the central one being the calendar(!) — and supporters of alternate calendars are ruthlessly suppressed as dangerous heretics who would bring down not only the political structure but the technological underpinnings of society.

In that world, a woman military commander with a knack for performing the complex calculations needed to invoke changing realities on the battlefield, is recruited to lead a force to break into an impregnable fortress taken over by the enemy.  To do that, she recruits the empire’s most dangerous enemy, a general who never lost a battle until he became a mass murderer, and whose body was destroyed and now only exists in prison as a consciousness — one that can be joined to hers if she can withstand his influence and work with him to win the seemingly unwinnable battle.

In short, there’s a lot going on here.

I really like books that give me new ideas, and this played with a *lot* of them.  And it was well written and witty and the characters were multi-dimensional and there were layered mysteries that peeled back only slowly.  Some of those mysteries are still opaque: it’s the first book of a series, and though this novel was pretty well self-contained and can easily be enjoyed on its own, there’s clearly a lot more to go in the overall story.  I’m really looking forward to the rest of them, and it became my number 1 pick (and took #3 in the Awards results).

BTW, I did really like the books I ranked 2-4 (I didn’t read 5 & 6, but they were both 2nd novels in their series), and if you’re inclined to read any of them, you can hardly go wrong doing so.  I might be a bit cautious about Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, though.  It’s another super clever and inventive book with a lot of new ideas — and it won the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer — but it’s the first book of a pair, the 2nd’s not out, and the tone of the book was already morphing towards the end into something that might well turn out to be disillusioning and unpleasant.  So I cannot yet assure you that it will be a pleasant read, just a technically very good one.

And that’s where I’m going to end this post.  In the next one, I’ll cover my post-conventional Helsinki experience, and I’ll get to that as soon as possible since, after all, Norway awaits!

 

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Croydon

What, no clever title relating to some interesting fact about Croydon, a working-class suburb south of London, or my experiences there?  No. Croydon really isn’t that interesting.  It’s just there, a quality that I had in common with it, briefly.

As usual, I’m sure that there were some moderately interesting bits that I never got to.  Wikipedia has rather a lot of information about the town and its history — although it is telling that much of the article’s modern information is devoted to the building of shopping centers and apartment complexes and the like.  (My friend Roger said that it was once billed as *the* place for middle class families to move to, away from central London — but that was more than a generation ago.)  The Wikitravel article, which would be intended more for tourists, is just a stub redirecting you to an overall South London page, wherein Croydon is described as the “Dallas of the South” — which is both hilarious to this native Texan and also kind of confusing when you think about it. I mean, come on: Dallas is already pretty much the Dallas of the South, and it’s indisputably much further south than Croydon. (Croydon is, in fact, higher latitude than Winnipeg, Canada, known to some as the Miami of the North.)  Calling it the “Dallas of the South” really kind of implies that the UK has another Dallas somewhere further up the country.  (There is village in Scotland called Dallas, but I can’t see anyone referring to a commercial metropolis by that village’s name.)

But I don’t mean to sound too harsh; not every town can be Edinburgh.

Looking up at Edinburgh Castle, from New Town. Sigh.

 

Monday, July 17th –Leaving

Leaving Edinburgh on July 17th was, as it turns out, was not entirely necessary.  I mean, yeah, I had to leave eventually, but my flight to Finland wasn’t until August 8th.  Unfortunately, it was from Gatwick Airport, a little south of London, and departed at close to 10am, so I knew I’d have to head down that way at some point and stay somewhere overnight.  And, when I’d worked out with Murphy to expand my Edinburgh stay from 2 to 4 months, I’d told him I’d be out on July 17th.  I knew that he’d be starting to book other guests again, and I knew that he’d want to raise his rates for the August season.  (Edinburgh has a world famous arts festival going on for most of August, called the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the tourists pack in and anyone with a room to rent bumps their rates way up.)  So, I thought I should clear out, and not (a) take advantage of Murphy by weaseling my way into extending my lower, off-season rate or (b) have to pay a *lot* more on my limited budget.

As it turns out, it became clear that Murphy would have been perfectly happy to have me stay longer, as (a) we got along well, and (b) he was *not* looking forward to dealing with the turnover for that room.  But by the time I learned that, my Croydon place was long since booked, so there we are.

In truth, I was kind of itching to get on the road again.  But 3 more weeks at Murphy’s would have been preferable; he sent me a message recently saying that he and Ealga missed my presence in the house, and the feeling is quite mutual.  Of course, people rarely miss me, per se, but apparently I generate nice vibes and the absence of those vibes is keenly felt. I should definitely looking into Haunting as my post-life occupation, if my presence is perceived so favorably. Maybe in concert with a real estate agency: I could haunt a place on the market, and potential buyers would come in, feel my agreeable presence, and snap the place right up.  Or maybe some clever buyer would leave his XBox out, and induce me to stay. “Yeah, the place is haunted. But if we leave out video games, the ghost keeps the energy balanced in a really nice way, and the kitchen has never been cleaner!”

Then, in the dark hours of the morning, guests would sometimes hear a haunting melody echoing through the hallways….

And they would know that, when they finally rose from bed, the coffee would already be made.

But, as it’s likely several years at least before I can take up that profession, more immediate concerns present themselves.  In particular, my obligations for continued travel.  So, early on Monday, July 17th, I rose before my alarm clock (as I often do on travel days), finished tidying and packing, and headed up to Waverley Station to catch the 9:30 train to Kings Crossing in London.

This was entirely uneventful. It was a slightly over 4 hour train ride, and I had snacks, and I don’t recall having a seat companion.  The scenery was generic green countryside, and I mostly watched Marvel’s Agents of Shield on my iPad, and all was right with the world.  The train arrived at Kings Crossing, and I navigated my way through the London Underground to Victoria Station, and caught a train 1/2-hour south to the Selhurst Station, about 4 blocks from my new place.

Which was here. This was one of those curious cases, that I run across about 1/3 of the time, where the listing description leads me to think of something quite different from the actuality.  A youngish guy named “Benedek” posted the Airbnb listing, who is originally from Budapest, and it’s mentioned that “Kati” is the co-host.  The phrasing of the listing suggested to me that there was a private bathroom, which was very appealing to me after 5 months of sharing, and it seemed like a multifloor place with my room and bathroom at the top, mostly out of the way of the young couple. Who, I assumed, would be working during the days. It also says that the Crystal Palace Park is nearby, the Crystal Palace being a famous glass-walled building built for an exhibition in the 1800s, and Google confirmed that its park was in walking distance.

In fact, “Benedek” was Tom Benedek, a young artist currently in Italy, and the place was his mother Kati’s, a very nice Hungarian woman maybe slightly older than I am, who worked (rather intermittently, it seemed to me) as a caregiver.  The place was a modest 2-story flat in a row of similar smallish townhomes, with one shared bathroom in the flat, and the other bedroom was *right* next to mine, and Kati was a late sleeper — so I was a bit self-conscious about any noises in the morning hours.  Kati, while entirely pleasant, was around a lot more than I was expecting, given that I was expecting a young, urban, professional couple.  She was also a smoker; which she did in the *very* green garden in the back, but it blew in through the upstairs windows and across the house to my room rather more than I would have preferred. (Which, in fairness, would have been zero, but, still….)  So I arrived and found that very little was really what I expected, but I’ve developed a trick for dealing with that, over the course of my travels.

It looks something like this.

My train from Victoria Station to Selhurst Station in Croydon was packed with roughly-5th-grade students, and their minders, a wonderfully ethnically mixed lot who got on soon after I did and exited at the same station, treating me to a long and very excited discussion of the pros and cons of local football players and, oddly, what they planned to reincarnate as next.  (The children, not the football players.)  It seemed a bit early for them to be planning their next incarnation… but as a guy who once booked a room in a farmhouse in Ireland 8 months ahead of time, perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones.  And, after all, something could go awry sooner; it’s important to have a Plan B.

I knew that I’d be arriving in the area at a little after 3:00, and I’d sent Kati a message saying, “This is when I’m arriving, but I can just hang out somewhere if it would be more convenient to meet me later, no worries.”  She said 5pm would be more convenient — it’s always a nuisance when people take you up on your considerate gestures, but what can you do?  So, I found a pub nearby called the Two Brewers, and got a pint of Guinness, and settled down to read and relax.

The middle aged woman tending the bar looked at me like I was from Mars when I tried to leave a tip. So, when I confirmed that it just wasn’t done, I took it back with a friendly grin.

It was a slightly odd place: off the street and several doors down into a residential neighborhood, with a very working class, neighborhood bar feel, like you’d expect a British Archie Bunker to show up there. There were pictures from Halloween over the bar, with a lot of superheros featured in them. The older folks hanging out in the other front corner from where I was sitting were talking about that Ryker actor’s new show, “that fellow from Star Trek but not the older series”, that was all about weird stuff (I think they meant Jonathan Frakes’ series Beyond Belief, though that’s almost 20 years old now), and then they started complaining about the Paki problem.  So, a weird mix.

And that’s not even counting this. I can only imagine the wondrous horror and fascination that little kids in the neighborhood must feel for this thing.

I had a pint, and that got me to about 4:15, so I had another, and some oatmeal crackers that I’d brought with me to soak it up.  About ½-way through the second pint, around 4:40, Kati messaged me to say she was home — which was considerate of her, to be sure, but mid-way through a pint it had little effect on my timetable. I worked my way through that pint, hit the street again, and arrived at about 5:04.

The Google Street View, looking northeast, of the road. The place I was staying in is near on the right, the southerly side.

So, I met Kati, got the brief tour of the place, set my stuff down, and had a nice chat with her in the garden for a while.  She seemed delightful, and I rather thought that there would end up being a lot more of that sort of conversation.  But then she had an old friend arrive from Hungary a couple of days later, and stay for a week — a woman who was probably nice enough, but in our every interaction she had a deer-in-the-headlights look, and I thought it best not to stress her.  (Plus, when an old friend visits, you don’t want a random stranger taking up valuable conversation time. And the random stranger doesn’t want that either, trust me.) And then Kati was under the weather for a couple of days. (I offered to get her groceries, or escort her to the doctor if she was feeling unsteady, and she was very appreciative but didn’t take me up on it — so, winning!)  And I had a lot of Elder Scrolls Online for a bit… So our paths managed not to cross very much.  It was always agreeable when we did, but there we are.

Elder Scrolls Online!

Speaking of ESO, there was rather a lot of that for a couple of weeks.  They had this “Midyear Mayhem” event, in one of the largest player-versus-player areas of the game — what you might dub the Warring States Area.  ESO players belong to one of 3 Alliances, and they’re fighting for control of the central, capital region, so you get massive groups of players invading towns and forts and fighting each other to control the most territory.  It’s pretty hectic, and the guys who are good at that sort of thing are way out of my league.

Even back in college, once you got past about 3 or 4 buttons on a video game, I was out. Some games I was quite good at, even drew a crowds (a handful of times) to watch me play, which was very gratifying.  But games like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter where you’re hitting 6-8 buttons and combining them for special moves… it just was never my thing. (Maybe that was a reflex I could have trained, but at the cost of a quarter per play it never seemed worth it.) And some of these ESO Player-vs-Player (PvP) guys are switching back and forth between 2 sets of 6 moves apiece, and rotating between moves to take advantage of their interactions, and using potions, and triggering special armor and weapon enchantments, and they’re doing that while they’re dodging around rocks and jumping through trees…

Like the guy in this video.  I don’t know how much of it you’ll be able to watch — none, probably, if you are prone to motion sickness, because his camera moves around a lot.  But, if it helps, he’s a Red alliance player, of a type known as a Nightblade (basically, an assassin type, lots of attack power, but low on defense), and he’s running solo, picking off Blue and Yellow players.  I’ve been killed almost instantly many times by just this sort of guy, and I didn’t even understand how it was being done until I watched how this guy was playing.

And then you get players like this doing it in coordinated groups, and taking advantage of the terrain and their fellow group members’ special moves. It’s a lot of layers of reflexive coordination, and the Twitch-Kiddies (as I think of them) are welcome to it.

I normally stay out of those areas, and play the quieter, player-versus-environment areas, where you’re just doing quests, fighting monsters provided by the game, and there’s very little there that I can’t deal with one way or another.  Heck, I can very happily spend a couple of hours just picking useful plants and collecting natural resources of various sorts.  And mum and Sarah and I join up in those areas once a week, and can handle almost anything the game throws at us.  (Mum and Sarah also like to fish. I’m sorry, but that’s where I draw the line.)

But this event was in the PvP area, and there was cool stuff to get, and it lasted across two weekends and the week between. So, I arrived in Croydon, spent a few days in the game doing some things I wanted to get done before it started, and then I launched into it, joining up with (hopefully) large groups in my Alliance and fighting over territory. Like an American!  And, overall, it went pretty well.  I got a bunch of stuff, had some fun, learned a play style that works for me — basically, a support role in large groups, and attacking from a distance, not trying to go toe-to-toe.  Some of these guys carefully pick equipment that maximizes their attack damage; some maximize their defense; me, I maximize my ability to hide and run away, and I’m *very* good at it.  But this is in keeping with my longstanding battle cry:

Weirdly, it works really well.  I can usually keep up a kill/death ratio of 3/1 or better, and I have a few good healing/protection techniques for my team, and a couple of good long-distance techniques for slowing and weakening the enemy so that the heavy hitters can take them out faster.

So, that was most of my first 2 weeks there.  Then I hit that allergic reaction that I mentioned last post, and had a headache for several days after, that made me disinclined to do much other than play. So I did.  It was all a bit more than I’d really intended, but whatevs.  I got some decent in game stuff with it. And I joined a guild (an in-game player club) that I’d played with a few times during the event, who have been around for about 10 years across a bunch of different games, and I’ve had some very enjoyable runs with them since.  So, it worked out, as it tends to do.

Meanwhile, In The So-Called “Real” World

I did manage to get out a few times.  The first location was a nearby grocery store, a *huge* Sainsbury — a conventional U.K. grocery store chain, with a modest selection of organic foods.  I generally like their stock, although they do occasionally provide puzzlers.

Um….

The place was just a couple of blocks away, and right next to a local football stadium — the store was closed entirely on game days, possibly because their parking lot was shared and possibly because the store didn’t want to risk looting if the game went badly. Or if it went well, for that matter. You know Brits and their football.

The initial route to the store took me most of the way around the large block that it was situated on, until I noticed an alleyway that had a modest selection of potted plants laid out as some sort of community garden.  The alleyway cut the travel distance in half — which I had mixed feelings about, since I wasn’t really getting enough exercise.  Still, it’s hard to argue with a time saver that avoids a lot of traffic and car exhaust. And other things.

I mean, when an area is clearly marked as a Red Light District, how much time do you really want to spend walking through it?

But, as fascinating as a large grocery store may be, it was not the only place I went to.  Being in the neighborhood of the Crystal Palace, I was quite looking forward to going there.  So, just after the ESO event officially finished, I walked up to where Google said it would be, walking about 40 minutes along highly trafficked roads to get to a “main street” sort of central area with little shops and restaurants, at the corner of the Crystal Palace Park.  This large public park was notable for 4 things:

Large green spaces, like this one, often with people lying out on the grass, children playing, and general enjoyment of the fine weather.

Smaller, more intimate green spaces. One such was a small hedge maze, which was mildly amusing to wander through, but not terribly interesting to photograph since, from anywhere inside, you’re really just getting a picture of hedges. (We all know what hedges look like, I trust?)

A Sports Stadium. Or, being England, maybe a Sport Stadium? I know one of the ways you can spot a British writer is that they refer to sport instead of sports. Also, maths instead of math, because consistency is for the conquered peoples, not for a citizen of the Empire. And, of course, whilst. I assume that this applies to stadiums also. Unless they’re called “bonnets” or something. You never know with Brits.

And the Crystal Palace. Isn’t it amazing? It was originally built in 1851, out of cast iron and glass, to hold the Great Exhibition of that year, and… wait, what’s that? You can’t see it? Oh, that’s because it burned down in 1936, and the park that it was on just kept the name, misleading tourists for decades after. Sorry, no palace for you, thank you, come again.

Sigh.

If it *had* been there, it would doubtless look like the photos on the Wikipedia page, and would be super cool.  But our generation doesn’t get to have nice things, so never mind.  I’ll just return in a huff to my immersive online fantasy world, my streaming video, my infinite library, and chatting with people all over the world on a device I can hold in my hand. It’s so unfair.

I had been greatly looking forward to seeing Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets while I was in Croydon.  But there weren’t any theaters near me, and the closest, about a 40 minute walk, was described on Yelp as pretty basic, but Ok as long as you didn’t mind the smell of urine.  As it happens, I kind of do.  There was one theater a 25 minute train ride away that was described as very nice, but I was really not in the mood to pay over twice the ticket price by adding transportation costs to it.  None of which would have been a sufficient barrier if the movie had been well reviewed; sadly, the general sentiment seemed very blah.  My friend Damien tells me that at least it’s pretty to look at.  Oh well, it’s not like I won’t enjoy streaming it later; seeing it in a big hall with overpriced snacks is *hardly* a requirement.

I had thought to make it up to London proper once or twice, to see things.  The thing is, I’ve been London a couple of times before, and it’s cool to go there, but I didn’t really feel driven to return.  And I’d rollerbladed all over the interesting bits in my previous visits, seeing Winchester Cathedral, and Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park, and 221B Baker Street, and the British Museum, and even sat in on a session of the House of Lords in Parliament — with Mark, no less, who was there on business. (In London, that is. Not in the House of Lords. He wishes.)

I *did* want to make a point to go back to the British Museum, though, because… come on!  It’s the British Fricken’ Museum!  Chock full of historical exhibits from all over the world, removed from their places of origin back when Britain was an Empire and could do pretty much whatever it wanted.  (They now respond to requests to return them with, “Hey, we preserved them from further damage and see no reason to stop now,” and “Look, we bought many of them fair and square,” and “No. We have nukes. Whachoo gonna do about it?”.)  So, I *had* to go back there.

And there it is! You can just see the outer wall there, out through the far windows of the pub! Magnificent, isn’t it? I can tell you, I felt very full of its magnificence when I left, nigh unsteady from the wonder of it all. Culture is a wonderful thing.

Oh, very well. Sigh. I *did* go inside the actual museum.  The thing is, when I got there, it was a Saturday, there was a considerable line to get in (thanks to the highly perfunctory bag check that you had to go through), and it was getting kind of close to lunchtime.  So, when I saw the Museum Tavern across the street, I thought, “What the hell?”, ditched the line, and had a wonderful (if a bit overpriced) lunch — a decent local stout and an odd sort of shepherd’s pie with a bit of lamb shank sunk into a bowl of potatoes and peas and gravy and such.  I figured maybe the line would be shorter when I got out, because the morning rush would die down, plus people would be going to lunch.  In the latter, I was proven exactly wrong.  The line was of almost identical length when I returned to it.  I, on the other hand, was much more fortified (and possibly slightly taller, if internal impressions count for anything), and between lunch and an audiobook, I found the line to be no great burden at all.  In really very little time, I was through the silly bit of bag checking and ready to enter the museum proper.

The very cool interior plaza of the museum, which looks like a somewhat later addition to the older, outer structures.

You may notice that one of the hanging posters on the central column is advertising a Hokusai exhibit. (He’s a famous Japanese woodcut artist, particularly known for piece known as The Wave.)  I was quite looking forward to seeing that exhibit. Unfortunately, while the general museum was free, the special exhibits require a ticket purchase, and while I would have gladly bought that ticket, they were sold out for the day.  I dallied briefly with being very sad about that, but in truth I have seen *many* woodcuts in my day, no few of them *in* Japan, and so I bore up fairly well under the disappointment.

I realize that it is my custom, during such museum visits, to include a large number of pictures, with accompanying commentary, some of which may even be said to venture towards the amusedly critical.  And I would like to do that here.  Unfortunately the British Museum, while certainly interesting, is not really what you could call amusing.  Much of it consists of things like this:

A hall chock full of some of the aforementioned, “acquired” marbles. Oooh, marbles. Seriously, what am I supposed to do with that?

I mean, it’s impressive. It’s dramatic. But is it art? Ok, sure, it *is* art, technically. You got me on that one. Damn.

And, really, without anything worthy of semi-sarcastic commentary, I might as well just include a link to Google Images.  In fact, I believe I will!  Here, take that, boring old British Museum!

I did wander around here for a few hours, but not as long as I normally would have, because it became an increasingly unpleasant space to be in.  In addition to the crowds, it was unpleasantly warm and humid in there, growing more so as the afternoon progressed.  I don’t know if it’s normally like that in the summer, or if their A/C was having problems, but the standing fans scattered about the halls were having little impact on the unpleasantness of the space, and I grew increasingly miserable until I’d had enough and bailed.  It was awesome to step outside into the cooler, fresher air, and the walk back to the subway station was much more pleasant.

A random bit of street. It almost made me think I should have stayed inside the city after all. More expensive, but I would have had something outside my door worth walking around in. This is always my quandary with cities: I don’t really want to be *in* them, and yet that’s the only way I’ll easily get out and see what’s there. It’s a balance that I’m constantly fiddling with.

Of course, once in the subway, my day was back to being warm and humid, but that’s not the A/C being down. It’s the fact that the tunnels are dug through clay, which has been banking the heat of their constant operation for a century, gradually getting hotter and hotter, until now it’s bordering on intolerable, with no ready solution in sight.  Here’s a fascinating article on the subject, which I enjoyed immensely while I was still in Edinburgh. Less so when I was experiencing the phenomena directly.  This is why experiencing the world through books, TV, games, and the web is *so* much better than so-called “real” life.  It’s much more comfortable, snacks are readily available, and you never have to hunt for a public restroom.

Speaking of which…

A Book!

I’m kind of torn between discussing some book that I had read recently, at that point, like one of the Hugo Award novels, or one that I read while I was in Croydon.  Honestly, there are just too many choices here. I think I’ll save the Hugo books for the Finland post, and go with what I actually read, L.E.Modesitt’s Assassin’s Price.

I’ve reviewed one of Modesitt’s books, Heritage of Cyador, at the end of one of my posts a couple of years ago, he’s one of my favorite authors.  As I noted there, he can be a bit formulaic, but I read pretty much anything he comes out with immediately.  This book was another set in his ongoing Imager series, set in a fantasy world where a few people can create objects out of nothing but their imagination (although with some costs), and Modesitt seems to be varying his formula a bit with his recent ones. The last books in that series didn’t involve a young man with growing powers, learning to use them in a fairly standard progression pattern; they centered on an older, established man dealing with a world and abilities he was very familiar with.  And this latest one, though it was back to the young-man learning-tradition, it was a man without powers in that world, dealing with essentially political problems and having to rely upon the powered people without really firmly understanding their world or what they do.

Side note: I’m not sure what the book cover really has to do with anything in the book. The scene it portrays is nowhere to be found. Hardly a unique sin in the literary world, but still.

It was an enjoyable read… but I’m not sure how broadly I can recommend it.  Quite a lot of it is really kind of expository, a lot of discussion about petty politics, and trying to get sensible solutions to problems implemented, and an intelligent young man in line for the throne learning stuff that will be useful to him.  There’s some assassination stuff, but it’s just brief bursts of action in an otherwise fairly dry story.  As I said, I enjoyed it, but… well… you have to like Modesitt, I guess.  If you want to read his work — and many of his books are well worth the read — start with The Magic of Recluce. Don’t start here.

Tuesday, August 8th — Leaving

I have rarely left a place as easily as I left Croydon.  Not merely because there wasn’t much to interest me there, or to hold me, but because the actual physical process of leaving and going to Helsinki was perhaps the simplest bit of international travel that I’ve had yet.  My hostess was away for the night, so I didn’t need to tiptoe around in the morning as I got ready.  I left on time for the walk to the train station, and had an easy wait for the 1/2-hour train to Gatwick Airport.

Though, if I’d wanted snacks while I was waiting, I’d have been out of luck. (These signs amused me greatly. Well done, retail servants!)

Airport security was pretty easy — I had the usual unpacking/repacking to do, and the pull to the side and double-checking of all my electronics, but I’ve long since worked out how to minimize the inevitable nuisance of that, so no worries.  I’d been concerned that Norwegian Air Shuttle would make me check my large pack, but they didn’t, and the overhead bins had plenty of room.  I got a nice window seat, folded my jacket behind me for lumbar support, and after a modest delay we were off to Finland!

Yaaay!  🙂

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So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

Hey, now this is exciting!  I’m currently in Croydon, a suburb south of London, where I’ve been for about 3 weeks.  And with this entry on Edinburgh, I’m finally catching my travel blog back up nearly to current time. Yaaaaay!

See, the trick is, compress 4 months worth of time into a single blog entry!  I should have thought of this ages ago.  All you have to do is go back to a place that you’ve been to and written about before, and then stay there for 4 months and don’t see anything new.  Write the blog entry for it just as you leave… profit!

From now on, all of my stays will be for 4 months at a time.  So, which of my friends wants to be first when I go back to the States and do my U.S. tour next year?  No, wait, that’s not fair… I shouldn’t make you guys fight over it.  I’ll set up a separate page with an automatic lottery, and you can all draw numbers, and whichever person draws the number closest to the one I’m thinking of right now will have the pleasure of my company for 4 uninterrupted months!  That seems the fairest way to go about it.  I’ll set that up shortly and let you know when it’s done.

And tomorrow morning, I leave early and head to Gatwick airport, to fly to Helsinki, Finland, for a month, where I will be attending the World Science Fiction Convention, WorldCon 75.  I thought I’d have gotten the Edinburgh post out sooner in my Croydon stay, but shortly after I arrived here the Elder Scrolls Online had another one of their events, Midsummer Mayhem, and OMG there was so much killing to do! Thankfully, it only lasted about 10 days, but there was some stuff I did ahead of it, and then momentum carried me for several days afterwards, gradually trailing off.  Yesterday was the first day I really felt like I was getting back to normal.  (Their next big event involves a new addition to a side of the game that I’m never involved in, so I think I’ll have escaped that one. Whew!)

In the meantime, on to the topic at hand: Edinburgh.  I was in Edinburgh from March 17th — which I discovered (at my favorite local pub, to which I had made a beeline after dropping off my bags) to be Saint Patrick’s Day, so yaay that. (I don’t mean that I didn’t know 3/17 was St Pat’s day, but I hadn’t been thinking about it and was mildly surprised to find it suddenly upon me.)  And I left Edinburgh on July 17th, 3 weeks ago.  I was considering writing this entry before I left Edinburgh, but then the digital game store Steam had a summer sale, and I got all of the Fallout games before the current Fallout 4 (Fallout; Fallout 2; Fallout 3; and Fallout New Vegas; and all of their additional content) for about $24.  So I bought them, and was playing the original Fallout, from 1997, for my last couple of weeks in Edinburgh (preempting most of my work on this entry).  It’s a kind of odd game to play, but surprisingly decent for a 20 year old game.

BTW, looks like I’m not the only person who recently started a Fallout 1 playthrough.  (In the unlikely event that you actually care, the video above is mostly the setup and character creation, and the game play action properly starts in this video blogger’s episode 2.  So jump to that one if you can’t wait to see a tiny, indistinct human stab even tinier indistinct rats in a cave.  But this first episode has the game’s intro, which is reasonably entertaining.)

BTW, I just ran into this bit on Twitter, and it seems apt here.

Not that anyone here was complaining — nor should they, given the atypical interests of all of my friends. Indeed, having atypical interests is very nearly a requirement for me to like someone. But it’s beautifully stated, and is a sentiment that I find that all of the best people share.

Anyway, it’s for the best that I didn’t finish this until I left Edinburgh.  After all, the point is to have a single blog entry for my entire stay; I can’t do that if I publish it before I leave, now can I?

Thankfully, this is not the impossible task that it might seem because, as you’ll doubtless recall, I’ve been here before.  In fact, I’ve been here 3 times in the last year (and once before that, long ago, but that hardly counts).  The first time was for 8 days in May 2016 (as seen in 3 posts, starting here), and, because of having to wait at home for 2-½ days for a FedEx package that had insane delivery problems, I didn’t really feel like I’d been here properly.  So, after going on to Ireland for the summer, I decided to go back (instead of going on to Berlin), so I spent my fall in Scotland with a month in Glasgow and 6 weeks in Edinburgh, before flying home for the winter (via Dublin).  I never did write up my fall time on the blog.  I may go back and do those during my down time back in the States in November — Glasgow deserves treatment, at least.  But the long and the short of it is: most of the cool stuff in Edinburgh is largely described in those earlier posts, and my return trips have mostly just been enjoying those things more.  But I’ll see what I can rustle up for you.

Probably the most notable thing about this trip was that it started as an odd jumble of priorities that ended up with me extending my original plan of staying 2 months, and making it 4 months instead.  I talked about all that a few posts ago; it had the delightful result of giving me 4 months to just not have to worry about travel and chill for a while.  In theory, at least.  In practice, there was a lot of ESO, while feeling guilty for not writing the blog, and while getting increasingly tense about not having plotted my after-Edinburgh travel yet, and then 3-4 weeks of working on the travel plans and stressing over too many possible variations to pick from and too many pricey Scandinavian options and Airbnb hosts who hadn’t updated their listings or were slow getting back to me.  But, by late May, that all settled down, and I started in on the blog again, and everything started to relax, and the last 7 weeks have been almost entirely pleasant.  And I think that’s how it’s going to remain — as long as I keep up on the blog.  My subconscious seems annoyingly insistent that this activity is a necessary thing, and even buying it a fidget spinner didn’t help.  Stupid subconscious.  (Note: I did not buy my subconscious a fidget spinner.  This was humor.  Although, if I could figure out a way to do it without alerting my conscious mind about it, I totally would, because, wow, my subconscious could really use something to let off some of its nervous energy, and take its not-mind off things. I wish it would find a video game it likes; that’s done the rest of me a world of good.)

Arrival

So, my flight into Edinburgh (from Barcelona) was meant to arrive at about 12:30, and ended up closer to 1:00, but other than having to send my host a couple of extra messages, that was no big deal.  Murphy wasn’t at home anyway, he was a few blocks away in a garden plot, weeding, and there was a keybox for letting myself in.  I’m not sure how one gets garden plots in Edinburgh, but there are a variety of places that the local council makes available to local residents — gated parks and whatnot — and this probably was part of such an arrangement.  Edinburgh seemed largely divided in what were effectively multi-block condominium complexes, where you own your unit, but you still pay fees for “the commons”, and they, in turn, take care of all matters outside of the walls of your unit, even to changing the light bulbs in your building stairwell.  It seems like a very agreeable way to divide a city into smaller, more manageable bits.

The bit that I was in is described here. It was a huge place, big enough for a sitcom about 3 or 4 starving hipsters in New York.  The room itself was large and warm and friendly, with old wood floors (stone in the kitchen), high ceilings, windows that looked north, and you could see bits of the Firth of Forth over the rooftops.  There was another rental room also, which had a young Spanish couple staying a bit longer term when I arrived, through the first month I was there.  The living room was almost unused, and Murphy slept in a large attic room upstairs (1 of 2 such).  The kitchen was kind of astounding: I’m thinking that Murphy has never found a useful kitchen tool that he didn’t buy, and use, and that kitchen was packed, often to the detriment of usable counter space.  The man has a carbonation system for making selzer water. He has a butcher-grade meat slicer, one of those big, spinning, slicing wheel things that give me nightmares.  He has a vacuum sealer, for vacuum sealing food in plastic envelopes!  There was a frig and freezer in the kitchen, and two more in a closet off the living room.  Apparently, he used to be a professional cook, and also an engineer, and we all know where that sort of combination leads.  Eventually, he started working at Airbnb, then rented this apartment from a Swiss woman (who seems to be grateful for a long-term tenant who handles all the repairs himself), and started using Airbnb to rent out the rooms.  Then he quit his Airbnb job, and now just lives off what he makes from hosting.  <cough> Slacker.<cough>

After dropping my bags off, I went to my favorite Edinburgh pub, Brewdog, and had their yummy goat cheese pizza and a new beer they’d just released that day, the Semi-Skimmed Occultist, which they had on tap.  My gods, that’s a good stout.  Brewdog is a recent Scottish brewery known for their eccentricity, and for their sometimes insanely strong beers.

They once made a beer that was 55% ABV (the percentage of Alcohol, by Volume, in the drink), called End of History, that came contained in a taxidermied animal. 
I love this with every fiber of my being.

For comparison, a typical Guinness is about 4.3%.  Most yeast starts to die by around 15%, and some strains make it to 25%; to get higher, I think you have to use special techniques like freezing the beer and removing the separated-out water ice, to increase the relative percentage of alcohol.  As I recall, a British temperance group made vocal complaints about the strength of Brewdog’s beers, on the principle that it encouraged irresponsible drinking.  So Brewdog responded by making one that was 0.5% ABV, and called it “Nanny State”.  The group, I heard, was not amused by being so roundly mocked — but Brewdog still makes Nanny State.  I ordered it once in Glasgow, because I *had* to try it — and I still remember the withering look of the bartender when I made my selection.  In truth… it wasn’t bad.  But I never repeated it, and I had Semi-Skimmed Occultist many times during my 4 months in Edinburgh, it never stopped being excellent.

After pizza and beers, I cleared out before the St Patrick’s Day crowds got large, and walked home, along familiar routes.  Very little had changed in the 5 months I’d been away, just a bit of construction here and there.

The true horror of the building’s sentience wasn’t that its cries for mercy weren’t heard. It’s that they were, but that the demolition continued anyway.

Not long after I got back, Murphy and the Spaniards returned, and I got a proper tour of the place.  I also got a bit of grim news.  Murphy’s Airbnb listing had mentioned Melody as a co-host, Murphy’s girlfriend, who’d been living with him for about a year I think.  Unfortunately, she had died within the last couple of months, in a rather unexpected and tragic fashion that I didn’t get the details about until shortly before I left.  I’m not going to describe it here — it’s rather a bit personal to be dumping into a public-facing travel blog page — but Murphy was struggling.  He’d canceled most of his bookings; I think I only got in because I’d booked long term and he knew he wouldn’t have to keep dealing with new people and turning over the room.  He did gradually get better while I was there, but he had his good days and his bad days, and there were days when he just didn’t come down from his room, and I can’t say that I blame him.  When he was around, I always found him smart, funny, and easy-going.  I enjoyed his company, and I quite liked his friends also, which is always a testament to a man’s character.  I even liked his dog, a frickin’ adorable German Schnauzer named Herman.  I get along with dogs well enough, but I’m not really a dog person — I liked Herman instantly, though.  (You’ll see pictures of him in the Airbnb listing photos.)  I’ll definitely look forward to seeing them again, next time I’m in Edinburgh, if he’s still hosting.

Anyway, this seems like a good time for a mood distraction:

The Spanish couple staying in the other guest room were nice enough; they were moving to the UK, and Murphy had said they could stay there, for reduced rent, if they helped take care of the place.  In the end, they didn’t help out as much as Murphy was hoping, and about 4 weeks after I got there he told them he was going to have to start renting out the room again and they’d have to find another place.  Then another friend of his, a really delightful Italian/Turkish woman (30? maybe?), named Ealga, needed a room closer to her new assistant manager job at a nearby cheese shop, and Murphy said she could rent the other upstairs room.  So, she moved in at around the 6 weeks mark.  Ealga was *great*.  Smart, friendly, into video games and a bit into manga… I had a bunch of great conversations with Ealga, and she brought me a little bag of wonderful decaffeinated coffee from the coffee roasters next to the cheese shop.  I need nothing more from a friend.

I got to meet Murphy’s best friend since college, Giles, who works as a freelance DJ up in Aberdeen, with (I’m told) a reputation for having a huge, eclectic library of music and a knack for building playlists to match pretty much any style or theme.  And Murphy’s friend Peter, an older (than me, at least) antiques dealer from London.  And I met Murphy’s parents a couple of times; his mother is American (Murphy had *very* little Scottish accent, although he claims that comes more from the world-traveling he did as an engineer), and his father owns the only fish cannery in the U.K.  Really.  Any tinned fished that I’d find in the supermarkets, no matter the apparent labeling, actually came from Murphy’s dad’s factory in Aberdeen, and I had all the tinned fish I could eat while I was staying there, including: interesting, experimental stuff that you don’t see in the stores: Sardines in Green Thai Curry, Sardines in Red Thai Curry, Mackerel in BBQ sauce; fish I’d never heard of, like Skippers, and Sild; and sauces I’d never heard of, like Peri Peri.

Some of the tins were labeled with various end-market packaging and descriptions, some of them were Mystery Fish, plain, unlabeled steel tins where you wouldn’t know what you were eating until you opened them. It. Was. Awesome!

Indeed, tinned fish was nearly the only thing I’d take from Murphy, who kept trying to offer food, or ask if I needed anything from the market, or suggest dinners.  It got to be a running gag that he’d keep offering and I’d keep politely turning him down.  I’d actually have taken him up on the dinners, except after the first few times that failed, I just gave up.  The failure was essentially because our schedules were about 4 hours offset.  Murphy would be up “early”, head over to get a Scottish breakfast takeout, and ask if I wanted some — but it would be 9am, and I’d have had breakfast 3-4 hours earlier.  (If I start eating random full meals between other meals, I’ll balloon up to a portly 160 lbs within the year.)

Or, he and his friends would propose dinner — at the unusually early hour of 9pm, out of consideration for me — and I’d think, “Ok. Sure. Let’s be sociable, it will be fun. I’ll have a snack to tide me over.”  And then 9pm would come, and 9:30, and there’d be *no* sign of dinner happening anytime soon, and I’d give up, have some cheese and oat crackers, and go to bed.

There was one time Murphy proposed fixing burgers, and eating *super* early at 6:30pm, and I said “Great!” Then, 6:30 came and went, and the other people weren’t there, and it was clear it wasn’t starting soon, so he insisted of fixing one burger for me, and sitting with me for company while I ate it.  Nice of him, to be sure; and it was a good burger, don’t get me wrong. But that really wasn’t the point of what was supposed to be a social occasion.  So, after a few of these, I just started saying, “Love to, but you *know* this never works.”

But other than that quirk, the interactions were everything that one could hope.  Once guests started staying in the other room again, mileage varied on my connection with them, but no one was disagreeable, and some of them made for great conversation.  And I got some great tips on visiting Estonia from a Belgian/Estonian couple; it cemented my (preexisting) desire to go there the next time I’m in Europe.  (Estonia is like Croatia, in that it’s invested in its infrastructure, and has great internet, and paperless government.  I’d read about this; apparently, as a foreigner, you can get “digital citizenship” in Estonia, with a variety of associated benefits.  I was advised to visit Tartu, in the south, instead of the capital of Tallinn.  Tartu is a college town, and cheaper and friendlier.)

Other than that, there were a few points of note.  One was that the water heater was a bit flaky.  I’m used to bathrooms and showers being weird, and often problematic, in about 2/3 of the places I stay, but this bathroom looked wonderful and modern and up to date, a wonderful relief.  Then I went to shower the first morning, and the heat wouldn’t come on.  I almost cried.  I wasn’t in the mood for a repeat of the daily cold showers that I’d had in Ireland last year, so I put up with being grungy and sent Murphy a message.  Then, the heat came back on a bit later.  Murphy explained that it was getting a bit flaky, and the 2nd or 3rd time it happened he showed me the steps needed to reset it so that it would work.  I then ended up being the water heater fixer guy, resetting it regularly for myself and for guests, and meeting the boiler repair guy a couple of times. (I think he came 3 times, and it got better, but still wasn’t perfect.) Murphy later thanked me with this cool bluetooth headband, with speakers embedded in the band where they can position comfortably right over your ears, and so flat that you can sleep on your side without feeling them — perfect for wearing and playing my white noise app when I go to bed.  My app plays the sound of a running creek — I set it to play for 3 hours and then slowly get softer and turn off, and it masks background noise pretty effectively.  But the sound is a bit tinny and harsh through the little iPhone speakers.  With this headband, it’s amazing.  The sound is rich, and full, and it surrounds me; I drift off to sleep cocooned in a gentle babbling brook.  (Ok, that sounds more cold and clammy than I intended. Thankfully the experience was auditory only.)  I was skeptical when Murphy said he was getting me a thank you gift, because gods can I not carry anything else on my travels.  But this headband is fantastic.

The second point of note is that the apartment was a little close to an intersection with a busyish street, and there was a bit of traffic noise.  Not normally too intrusive, but extra reason for the white noise app, especially when the weather warmed up and I had to leave the window open. (We had a bunch of warm, dry months while I was there, unusual for Scotland, and the locals were freaking out a bit over it.)  The street noise only became intrusive when they started repaving the road, a month before I was to leave. They said it would take the whole month, and I groaned.  But, in truth, it was only a big deal over maybe 10 days, near the beginning of the month.  And for probably 9 of those days, I just let the noise pass over me, and ignored it.  The other day, I got the hell out and went someplace more pleasant for a few hours until it was over.

Things I Did

As I mentioned previously, a lot of the things I did during this visit were repeats of things I’d done in prior visits.  That’s Ok, because I liked doing those things, so doing more of them was perfect.

Walking: Holyrood Park & Arthur’s Seat

Every 2 or 3 days I’d go walkabout, usually to Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, which was about a 50 minute walk up and down hills across New Town and Old Town, including a fairly steep hike up the hill itself.  At the beginning, I’d usually divert to one of the secondary hills because (a) the main Seat was crowded with tourists so you couldn’t just sit quietly and admire the view, and (b) some worry about heart failure.  This is the difference between hiking in your 20s and 30s and hiking in your 50s when you spend most of your day in front of the computer. In your 20s and 30s, when your heart is pounding from the exertion you think, “This is great, I feel so alive!”. In your sedentary 50s you think, “Is this the day I have the fatal heart attack?”  (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)

So, I’d go up to the secondary hill, with a snack or a bit of lunch, and just sit for a while and look out to the south over the suburbs south of Edinburgh, and enjoy the cool/cold breeze/wind/gale and the sun/clouds/spatter of rain, and just appreciate how great it was to be there.

Looking southeast, with a bit of the Firth of Forth in the picture to the east (left). Visible in the lower left is a little dirt track, worn into the earth by a tall black guy who often showed up at around 11am and walked back and forth along that same 15′ long bit of hill for 20-25 minutes, with headphones in. We saw each other 1/2 a dozen times, and had graduated to a friendly nod by the time I had to leave. We never got to the “Hey” stage, which was a lost opportunity, but how often you never get around to saying the important things, and then one of you is gone.

Over time, that walk up to the hill got easier and easier, my heart pounded less and less, and in the last 6 weeks or so I started occasionally walking up to the high point, Arthur’s Seat proper, and hanging out for 5 minutes or so, before leaving the tourists and walking down to my secondary hill.  The improvement in general fitness was very gratifying.

Also gratifying were the podcasts and audio books I started listening to on my walks.  As much as I like feeling connected to my surroundings, there’s only so many days you can walk across what is largely the same patch of city before you start to need something to occupy your mind.  I caught up on all of the Radiolab podcast (which I *highly* recommend; their episode on forests is kind of mind blowing), and Welcome to Night Vale, and then started in on Neil Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats, and a collection of Lovecraft-inspired stories, and Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword, and now I’m an audio book convert.  I listen to them mostly in tiny bits, as I’m making meals, which is better for a non-fiction podcast than for an engrossing story, but boy did they make those regular walks more enjoyable. And maybe even possible — it’s hard to keep going out, knowing that you’ll see the same things every day.  Having something great to listen to at the same time really turned that around.

Walking: Calton Hill and the Nelson Monument

When I spent that first week in Edinburgh, a year ago, one of the places that I’d meant to get to was Calton Hill and the Nelson Monument.  But there was the whole FedEx problem, and I just didn’t have time.  When I came back for 6 weeks in the fall, it was firmly on my to-do list, until it got moved to my to-didn’t list, as so many things do.  But this time, about 1/2-way through my stay, I made it.

The Holy Trinity of landmarks in Edinburgh are the Castle, Arthur’s Seat, and the Calton Hill, and this plaque from the little museum inside the Nelson Monument (the tower you’ll see on the hill) has a pretty good shot of it. In truth, there’s not really much going on here. There’s the tower (the Nelson Monument), a little stand of greek columns intended to resemble the Parthenon except the money ran short (the National Monument), and a small observatory (that was closed when I was there).

I can’t argue with their claim about the view though.  Here’s 3 pano shots that cover the full 360° from the top of the Nelson Monument — which was a considerable climb up the narrow, circular, tower stairs, and serious wind at the top.

Looking south, with the edge of the National Monument’s Greek Columns in the lower left and the edge of the Firth of Forth out to the east, Arthur’s Seat right of that to the south, all of Old Town stretching to the right, with Edinburgh Castle at the far end, Princes Street running west.

Turning west, covers much the same territory, but I couldn’t stand where the other photographer was, and he looked to be there a while. But here we look out along Princes Street, with Princes Street Gardens running along it, forming the boundary between Old Town and New Town, with the West End beyond it.

Looking North to the Firth of Forth.

I had a bunch of trouble posting and describing those, because I cannot help flipping Edinburgh around in my head, to put the Old Town, Holyrood Park, and the Castle to the north.  It’s the weirdest thing.  Then I start writing things like “Princes Street running east”, and catch myself later and have to start combing through the text looking for all the mirrored references.

I think, in my head, I place the top of any map as north, and I also place all the good stuff at the top of my mental map.  QED, the Park, Arthur’s Seat, and the Castle must be north, and where I lived in New Town must be south, along with the Firth.  It takes a modest effort of will to remember them the other way.  Fun fact: ancient maps used to be oriented with East at the top, because that’s where the sun rose.  And that’s why we call the lands to the east the Orient.  Why some people seem to think “oriental” is a slur for asians is a mystery to me, since it literally means “people from the lands at the top of the map”.  But, then, why people choose to get upset by things often confuses me.  The next Doctor Who will played by a woman, get over it. (If it’s never going to be the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, again — and it never will be, no matter how many small animals you sacrifice to the gods, trust me on this — then I really don’t see why anyone would care who plays him. Her. Them.)

Anyway, as I said, there wasn’t really too much up here, but there were a lot of tourists showing up to see it, and I got to check it off my list.  And it got me out of the house, so yaay that.

Walking: Leith Walk

Among the things that Murphy used to bug me to go to was Leith Walk, a little park and walking path the ran along the Leith River, just a few blocks south north of our place.  I’d actually walked much of it south north towards the Firth of Forth, within a week of two of my arrival, but it took me until about a week before I left to walk it east west.

It’s a nice longish walk, along a path through the narrow park that runs along the river. Probably super nice to have a house overlooking, and hear the sound of birds and river and small waterfalls instead of city traffic.

If you keep going, you reach two art museums in fairly short order; the park continues on up the river from there, but I did not.  (And Murphy claims that there is no need to.)  I never did go to the two art museums, but it’s important to save something for next time, otherwise I might not be tempted to come back.

Walking: Other

And, of course, there was other, miscellaneous walking.  Even walking familiar routes can lead to delightful surprises.

Passed this amusing van, on the way home from the grocery store, but it would barely be worth mentioning except that, literally just around the corner…

Soul mates, unaware that their true loves were but yards away, out of sight around the corner.

I have never been so torn between hating a thing and loving it.

They’re speaking my language.

In a similar vein. (I assume it’s a deliberate mockery of the Choose Life motto, and I approve.)

I don’t know… I like good bread too. I think every grain has to find its own path in life, and we shouldn’t judge those who choose the road yeast traveled by.

I took this picture because of the beautiful sky. Only looking at it later did I notice the warning sign, that the road could crumble beneath you at any time. I didn’t realize that sinkholes were a big problem in Edinburgh, but kudos to the Scots for being so blasé about it.

Amazing sky is amazing.

Right up until the mood swing, which is still amazing, but you might just want to hustle inside.

Yeah, inside seems good. There was hail that day, as I recall.

But, as I mentioned, the weather while I was there was comparatively warm and sunny most of the time.

A view looking south east towards Old Town, next to the National Gallery between Old Town and New Town.

Or, from a few feet away, the view over Princes Street Gardens. I mean, my gods! After 4 months there, I was really feeling like it was proper to move on to the next place. But now I’m wishing I’d written all this before I left, because browsing these pictures is making me homesick.

Of course, they had hail in Glasgow just yesterday, so who knows how long this good weather held up after I left.

Museums

I went back to the National Museum a few times.  It was free, and they had restrooms.  Also, a decent cafe that wasn’t terribly expensive. (And a serious restaurant, with a view, that was more so, but I went there last time.)  I kept swinging by the gift shop, thinking that I’d find a cool scarf or pin or something, but no such luck.

You can tell it works, because they’ve already erased Pluto. #NeverForget

I also went to the National Art Gallery, and saw their Beyond Caravaggio exhibit, but they didn’t allow pictures. (Not sure what these are, then.)

Other Events

One of my crowns came loose, and I had to find a local dentist to re-affix it.  Murphy suggested someone a bit over an hour’s walk away across the heart of the city, and they were able to see me almost immediately.  Delightful people, and much perturbed about the unseasonable weather.  I confessed that it was my fault; I love the rain, and wherever I go, it mostly stops until I leave. California? Droughts. I leave? Rains and flooding. Rainy Thailand? Here, let me fix that for you. Boom! Instant drought conditions.  Southern Ireland? Unseasonably warm and sunny while I was there. Edinburgh? The same.  Now I’m in London, and today was sunny and 82°.  I think next year I should look into submarine rentals. It’s the only option left, if I want water above me on any kind of regular basis.

My long standing allergy to any kind of denim other than black Levi’s 505s got worse.  And I’m not kidding here — for 10 years, wearing any other denim starts to make my skin raw and irritated and progressively worse until — well, I have to stop wearing them before I do damage. Except for black Levi’s 505s. I have no idea why they’re different, but ended up owning 8 pair, 7 of which are buried in a storage container in Washington state.  But the 8th pair, that I’ve been wearing every day for the last 18 months of European travel, finally wore out.  So I ordered a new pair (with some difficulty, because of weird English textile import rules) and, within 3 weeks of wearing them, the reaction started.  My best guess is that they’re using a new dye now, more similar to the dye used on their other jeans, and that’s what I’m reacting to.  I thought maybe I’d been able to fix the reaction using some holistic stuff, but instead I’ve just changed it: now, wearing them for even a day gives me massive headaches — the last one, last week, took me nearly a week to recover from. (Part of the reason I kept playing Elder Scrolls Online after the event was over last week; I didn’t at all feel like going out. Or thinking too hard.)  So that’s crazy annoying. ☹️  I’ve found a pair of heavy cloth pants that aren’t denim, but should still be good for cooler weather, and I’ve given the 505s to a local thrift shop, but I’ll miss them. They were sooo comfy, like good jeans are supposed to be.  At least, in a few years, I’ll unpack my storage container in a new home and my good, old-make jeans will be waiting for me. Something to look forward to in my old age.

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 when it came out, a week earlier here than in the U.S. A super fun movie — maybe I liked #1 a bit more, but you can’t go wrong with Kurt Russell playing an insane, sentient planet.

The new Spider-Man: Homecoming, out now, was fantastic.  Witty, and fun, and very new in style and tone from the prior movies, much more similar to a modern Marvel movie than the previous renditions.  Perhaps the best portrayal of Peter Parker as a smart but impulsive 15 year old who gets super powers dropped in his lap and has to try to learn the ropes, getting in way over his head most of the time.  The previous Peters were all basically young adults.  Not that I’m complaining about them; to my mind, Spider-Man 2 may be the best superhero movie ever made.  But they were still darker, more mature movies.  This one is light and energetic and fun.  And it has Michael Keaton, who is amazing, playing a really good role really well.

The new season of Sense8 came and went and was (mostly) brilliant. My friend Jenni gave me sooooo much grief for not finishing the whole 11 episode series the weekend that it came out, OMG, you have no idea.  And then Netflix canceled it, cutting away the option for a season 3, and leaving us with more than a few cliffhangers unresolved.  And then they agreed to a 2-hour wrap up movie.  So, we’ll see where that goes.

And then Neil Gaiman’s American Gods TV adaptation came out, and it was amaaaazing!  That, I binged-watched all in one day (8 episodes, just doable), once the season wrapped up.   It aired as weekly episodes on Starz and was available on Amazon with a Starz subscription.  But I plan to buy the series, and I’m *not* paying Starz twice: 2-3 months of subscription fees while it’s airing, and then a second time to own it when it’s released.  So, I waited until it was complete, subscribed for the free trial, and the canceled after I watched it.  Which I wouldn’t normally do, but I’m totally buying it from them when they’ll sell it to me.  Anyway, it’s a genius adaptation of the novel, and I highly recommend it.

Let this stand in for all the things that I didn’t do. An improv comedy show! I would totally go to that, if they had it at, say, 1:30 pm. Maybe — maaaaybeee…. — even at 6:30 pm. But 10:30 pm? Nuh uh, no way. If this was 1985, and the only way to get entertainment outside of books and telly was to go to live shows, so you went whenever they chose to put them on, sure. But 2017? I have hundreds of hours of entertainment that I’ve ripped or recorded and not even watched yet, not to mention the countless thousands I could stream. You think I’m going across the city to watch a show that may or may not be any good and doesn’t even start until 10:30? Ha ha ha ha ha ha, you’re funny! Yeah, no.

One last Edinburgh image: Cherry Blossom Season!

And finally there were books.  More than a few really, and a bunch of short stories and novels and novelettes and whatnot, as part of voting for the Hugo awards, given out at WorldCon 75.  But that, as they say, is another story.  😁

 

 

Postscript: A Brief Warning

WordPress recently released a new version that’s giving people some update headaches — particularly people hosted on Aabaco (formerly Yahoo Business) servers, as I am —  and I am one of those people having these problems.  Yahoo and Aabaco have never been great for web support, and I’ve thought about leaving a few times, but it will be a hassle to move the site and my email addresses and old mail and all of that, so I’ve held off.  But I may soon have to and, in the meantime, my fingers are crossed that you’ll be able to read this entry.  So far, it works, but everything is suuuper slow to load.  So, if sometime in the next month, you’re not able to access my e-mail or this site, that will probably be the reason.  Aabaco/Yahoo/Wordpress problems, and/or me being in transition to a new host.  You all have my phone number, if email fails and contacting me becomes important. (However unlikely that is.)

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♬ Da duh-duh duh-duh dum dum, Barcelona! ♬

(Yes, I know, it sounds stupid. But I swear that not a day went by without my singing that to myself at least once.  My powers of free association are both a blessing and a curse, like… I don’t know, something else that’s a lot like that.)

As with my last post, I am currently in Edinburgh, with about 11 days left until I head down to London for 3 weeks, and thence onward to Helsinki, Finland, for Worldcon 75, the World Science Fiction Convention.  As an attendee, and a member for the year, I get to vote for the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s equivalent of the Oscars.  As with the Oscars, there are other SF awards, like the Locus, the Nebula, Spectrum, and others, some of which are arguably of more merit.  But, still like the Oscars, the others don’t get nearly as much press coverage.  There’s more I could write about that, but it probably makes sense to save it for my Helsinki post(s) — by which time I will have forgotten what I meant to write about, saving us both a great deal of time and effort.  Winning!

Anyway, my only real point in bringing up the Hugos is that, since I get to vote on them, I have been reading the nominees.  (Again) like the Oscars, voters get packets of the nominees, so I’ve been reading through free PDF copies of a bunch of really good novels, novellas, novellettes, novellinis, novellejos — I don’t know, I’ve been getting kind of lost in all the categories — graphic novels, short stories, art, and so forth.  I was pleased to find that I had read a bunch of this year’s nominees already — not even 1/3, mind you, but definitely more than usual — and the others have been pretty uniformly enjoyable.  The only stand out sucky one was a short story by a guy with a reputation as an a-hole, who was only on the list because there’s a big a-hole voting block who nominated him.  (More on that in the later post, if I remember it.)  The flip side is that, while the materials are good, having to read a bunch of them for a deadline feels rather like having a lot of homework and being behind on it.  Not unlike having a travel blog. So, super awesome to have both of those going on at once.  Plus, did I get enough walking in today?  Did I do yoga? Did I meditate? Stay current with new Elder Scrolls Online content? Read enough Twitter? Read enough Hugo nominees? Make any progress on the travel blog? Go see something interesting locally? Eat something even a little different from what I’ve been eating every day all week?  Do any of the dozen or so things I vaguely sort of ought to do but keep putting off because of all the other things?

This is why people become hermits, you know.  I mean, *proper* hermits, not this genially misanthropic thing I’ve got going.  They head off to a shack in Peru and live in a hut with nothing for company but a solar charger, the collected Harry Potter audiobooks, and a llama named Dolly, and you don’t hear from them for 5 years, and when they return they have a limp and a beard and eyes that have seen too much, eyes that look right through you, and, yeah, they shave, and they clean up, and they dress normally enough, but the first dinner party you insist on holding around them they drink silently for the first half hour before responding to a casual question about their time “down south” with suddenly blazing eyes and Words Humans Are Not Meant To Hear. None return from *that* dinner party unchanged, and none will tell you what they heard, and barely half of them will live out the year.

So, just FYI, that’s what I’ve been doing in Scotland.  Also, Edinburgh has finally had a patch of cool, rainy weather, which has been wonderful.  It means I have to work harder on getting enough walking exercise, but it’s still awesome.  So much better than all the warmth and sunshine we’d been having here, which even the locals find a bit unnatural. Unnatural… yesssssss.

So, currency achieved… where was I?

A Linksys To The Past

My last day in Seville was Friday, February 17th, though it was barely a day in Seville at all, since I was up before dawn, finishing the last of my packing and cleaning, and heading out by around 7:30am to meet the 8:50am train to Barcelona.  A 25 minute walk through morning streets that seemed very different from the Seville I’d become used to: everyone I passed seemed very purposeful.  Of course, you wouldn’t have many tourists walking around then, and I’d expect that in cities/cultures that stay up later, the folks up earlier in the morning have a damn good reason to be up that early.  But I almost felt like I was seeing a different city, and kind of regretted not having been up and about that early before.  Not that there would have been anything to do.  Not that I’d have done those things if there were.

Anyway, I got to the train station in plenty of time, negotiated with a few machines until I found one that would agree to give me the ticket I’d preordered, stood in a surprisingly long line to get a breakfast-sandwichy thing to have for second breakfast once I was on the train, and then settled down to wait for the platform number to be posted — which happened right when I was disassembling parts of my packs for better arrangement.  I cursed, quickly reassembled them, and quick-trudged off to the train, sitting down with a whole 5 minutes to spare.  (Gotta say, I’m really not a fan of the “Hey, we have no idea where you have to go until *right* before you have to be there” thing.  But I guess it still beats dealing with the TSA (or local equivalents), so whatevs.)

The 5-1/2 hour train ride goes north through the middle of Spain, through Madrid, and then drifts east to reach Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.  I suppose a reprise of the earlier map of Spain would be in order here:

Spain. The capital, Madrid, is pretty much dead center. Seville is south and west, towards the Atlantic, and Barcelona (my destination for month 2) is in the northeast.

The ride was pleasant enough; I had a forward facing window seat, treating me to more views indistinguishable from Southern California:

Pretty enough, in a semi-arid sort of way, especially in the morning light, but not worth elaborating upon with a great many pictures. If you feel like you’re missing out, take the 405 north out of LA for a couple of hours. Same difference.

I did have a seat companion to ignore for about half the trip, but the ignoring thereof was not a trial.  I don’t think I’ve had a proper conversation with a public transit companion since my bus ride from the airport to the downtown terminal in Taipei.  I’m pretty decent at matching conversation, but not terribly adept at (nor inclined towards) starting it, so if my companions aren’t talkers, little talking will be had.  Unless, of course, something obviously funny presents itself — but in my experience the results of assaying that sort of thing vary pretty widely.  On this trip, no such events presented themselves, and I have no complaints.

Arrival

We arrived at the Barcelona Sants station at 2:25 in the afternoon… and I suppose this would be a good time to drop a map of the city:

The central part of the city, where I tended to wander. My Airbnb was at the circled star just north of the center, the airport is about 30 minutes south along the coast, and there are plenty of museums and parks and a zoo and an aquarium — judging by what I see, looking at the map here. I’ll take Google’s word for it.

There’s a lot that can be said about Barcelona, and I intend to say only a very little of it. Culturally, there are several points that I find of particular interest:

1) It’s the capital of Catalonia, one of the semi-autonomous regions of Spain.  Spain seems to be a bit of an uneasy federation, not unlike the United Kingdom only grouchier about it.  You may have heard of the Basque region in the north, which has been fighting off-and-on for independence for many years.  Catalonia appears to be only a little happier about the arrangement.  I really only saw this demonstrated in the area of language: Catalan is not quite Spanish.  So, you’d look at restaurant menus at and see things written in the two languages that, as a person fluent in neither, looked almost identical.  And the national art museum had bilingual plaques, with descriptions written in Catalan and Spanish.  Given the number of international tourists in Barcelona, the amount of space devoted to 2 local languages, in place of Spanish OR Catalan and some more internationally useful language like (just to pick one out of the air) English… this is kind of hard to read as anything other than a big F.U. to the Spanish government.

There was some talk, during all of this Brexit stuff going on in the U.K., that an attempt by Scotland to break away into its own country and join the EU might be blocked by Spain.  The Spanish government really doesn’t want to talk about parts of countries breaking out and becoming independent, because as far as I can tell they’d lose the Basque region in a heartbeat, and Catalonia almost as quickly.  Then Theresa May and her government did some new stupid thing that annoyed the Spanish (I think it was about the status of Gibraltar), and Spain piped up, “Nooo, no problem, you Scots could go right ahead, we have no objections at all!”  Heh.  Politics is fun!  (When you can look at it from the outside.)

BTW, during a break soon after writing that paragraph, I was browsing Twitter and this story synchronistically came up in my feed:

Catalan independence: Plan for quick split from Spain after vote.

Just in case you were wondering if this was idle speculation on my part.  🙂

2) It’s a very modern city.  There are old buildings to be sure, that date back to medieval times (and excavations going back to 5000BC), but much of the central city was rebuilt in the 1800s by modern planners, so there’s a clear street grid, wide avenues, large and frequent plazas, fairly uniform building heights of 4-7 stories, and some amazing architecture.  More on that later.

4) Related to that, Gaudi. A world-famous Catalan architect (1852-1926), he seems to be *the* big local hero, and has architecture and art all over Barcelona, and plenty of other architects were inspired by him.  I feel like I’m giving him short shrift to just mention him here and then move on — he is, after all, kind of a big deal.  But I’ll have more on that later and you can always Google his buildings.

3) Finally, back in the prehistoric days of 1992, Barcelona hosted the Olympics, which had two effects.  First, they modernized even more things, built more public transit, built a subway system, and generally enhanced the infrastructure to get ready for it, and have been benefiting from that investment ever since, even in Spain’s currently tough economic times.

Second, it was the first time I’d ever really heard of Barcelona, and as I watched the Olympics coverage I was astonished to realize that Spaniards were Europeans!  This, of course, sounds absurd. Of course they are!  But, growing up in San Antonio, Texas, “Spanish” really sort of implied “Mexican”, and without really thinking about it I had subconsciously assumed that Spaniards looked like Mexicans.  Of course, they don’t.  Mexicans are primarily aboriginal Americans (and, going further back, Asians), with varying degrees of Spanish (European) blood mixed in, and Spaniards sit somewhere in the French/Italian European bloodlines.  And, to be clear, if you’d asked me, “What do Spanish people look like, ethnically?”, and given me any reason at all to think about the question, I’d have spit up the right answer.  But, without thinking about it, it took seeing pictures of Barcelona and Barcelonians in the Olympics coverage for me to suddenly go, “Oh, wow, they’re totally Europeans! Of course! Of course, they would be. Duh!”

For comparison, I grew up mostly in Texas, and didn’t realize why it was called “The Lone Star State” until I was in my late 20s.  Then it suddenly occurred to me to wonder, and I immediately realized that our state flag had 1 star on it.  But I’d never consciously thought about the name before, it was just a predefined label.

For further comparison, I didn’t realize that people had accents until I was in 8th grade.  I’d moved around a lot as a kid, been around all sorts of people from different parts of the country, and my mother’s family spoke a more accentless English (if there can be said to be such a thing) than most of my neighbors.  So, I just kind of thought that people talked however they talked — I didn’t really notice the differences, and the idea that there were regional similarities never occurred to me.  Then, in junior high, I had a Texas History teacher from Brooklyn, with a strong Brooklyn accent, and that’s when it clicked.  “Oh, wait, he’s not just a unique example of himself, he’s part of a group of people who talk that way, and that’s what accents are!”

These little enlightenment experiences still stand out to me, years later.  Any embarrassment at having not noticed a fairly common thing is thoroughly dwarfed by the pleasure of the realization.  (And, given the number of daft things many people believe, that never crossed my mind and that I still have trouble crediting that people can buy into, I’m going to claim I’m still ahead of the game.)

But I digress.

Moving on

The Barcelona Sants train station is circled on the map above, a little west of center, and it conveniently connects to a subway line that runs north east along the major streets, exactly where I needed to go.  I navigated it without too much trouble, and found myself coming up right in front of a Gaudi building, the Casa Milà, just a couple of blocks southeast of where I was staying.

Mind you, this isn’t the best shot of the building; for that, I direct you to Google. But it’s a pretty famous building, fluid and organic looking, that I recognized immediately — and to see it just as I came out of the subway, as my first step into Barcelona, was kind of cool. So, you get the picture I took, probably more to memorialize the occasion for myself than for any tangible benefit to you. You’re welcome.

Looking the other way got me this view:

Casa Mila Adjacent. This is effectively just a random city view, but it does highlight a few things: really broad streets, sidewalks, big bike lanes, lots of motorbikes, lots of public transit, pleasant architecture on even fairly utilitarian buildings, and a little of me, in the upper left. (I rarely include myself in these shots so, again, you’re welcome.)

It was, of course, the middle of February and thus theoretically winter, which can be shown by the woman in a heavy overcoat at the left, and the trees with no leaves.  This was pretty much the only way I could tell; it felt like a pretty comfy spring day to me.

I walked easily to my Airbnb place, which was a quiet building set back about 2 blocks north from the main central street that cuts diagonally across the city’s grid (inventively named “The Diagonal Avenue”), managed to correctly buzz the apartment, and made my way up 3 of the 4 floors to be let in by Ian, the college-age son of the flat owner — who was a very attractive woman perhaps a hair younger than I whose name I confess I’m now struggling to recall.  I could swear it started with an “M”… Margueritte? Magdalena? Madre De Ian? I don’t know; I rarely had occasion to use it, and it’s now 4 months later.  She was *super* nice and we shared an interest in yoga, but she spoke very little English and I know barely a dozen words of Spanish, so it was basically a lot of smiling warmly at each other for a month.  They had another guest staying a bit longer term, a 30-ish Italian guy who spoke (I think) decent Spanish and a bit of English, and I think was in Barcelona looking for work — though I only know that from hard-not-to-overhear phone calls, since we barely exchanged more words than I did with… Mariana(?).

Most of my conversation was with Ian, who spoke fluent English, had done some early college in Atlanta, Georgia, and was now near graduating in Barcelona while working essentially as the software architect for a startup company creating computerized menu/ordering systems for restaurants.  Oh, and he was a big anime fan.  We’d already bonded over the internet when I booked the place, and we’d both anticipated sharing a great deal of anime during my stay… but before I got there he’d ended up largely moving out to a place closer to the startup and to the university, to reduce his commute, and I ended up almost never seeing him, which was a pity.  The few times we talked, I found him delightful company.  Oh well.

(There was also a friendly and mellow white bull terrier — not my fave breed of dog, but perfectly agreeable otherwise.  There was, I was told, a younger brother, currently studying philosophy at the university.  And I’m not sure where their father might have been, but Ian never said word one about him, so I’m inclined to guess that he’d either passed away or else left under unpleasant circumstances.  Neither possibility really encourages inquiry, so I thought it best to leave it as an unknown.  I’ve blithely ignored things that were far more my business than this.)

Ian was pretty much running the Airbnb aspect of the place, and it’s his photo attached to the listing.  He was also responsible for setting up the two WiFi networks that covered the long, thin apartment, and I had to give him kudos on the network names:  “A Linksys To The Past” and “Virus Gratis”.   In case you don’t get them, the first is a play on a WiFI router manufacturer named Linksys, merged with a classic Nintendo game, “The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past”.  The second promises “Free Virus” if you connect to it.  I particularly liked this sticker on his laptop:

I promise you, all of my techy readers are laughing at this. (For the rest of you, I could sum it up as “Save your current code changes to the network before fleeing the fire”, but the comedic effect would be quite lost. This joke is not for you. Move along.)

So, yeah, Ian was my kind of people.

The room itself was long and narrow, with a window overlooking some rooftops, and the WiFi was generally quite good — though it could bog down something fierce in the evenings after people started getting off work.  There wasn’t a lot of room for yoga; just a narrow walkway between the bed and the large freestanding closet, but I angled and contorted and made do.  I found organic grocery stores, and settled in for the month.

Depriving Barcelona of Its Brightest Ornament

“The sage knows without traveling.
He sees without looking.
He works without doing.”
— Lao Tzu

He travels without touring.  I have to confess, Barcelona has the dubious distinction of being the city that I cannot help feel got the shortest shrift from me, of all the places that I have been.  I don’t know why, but I really was *not* in the mood to be going places.  I barely was in Seville, and even less so in Barcelona.  Some of that undoubtedly derives from my immersion, at the time, in Elder Scrolls Online.  As I wrote a couple of posts ago, they had a succession of celebratory events and rewarding activities that, while they eventually grew to be too much of a good thing, were still pretty much at the very peak of Good Thingness when I arrived in my new residence.  So, any inclination that I might have had to go out had to fight pretty hard with Fun Stuff To Do Inside.  And it’s always been my nature to get immersed in the things that interest me — as, I suppose, it should be.

When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
— Shunryu Suzuki

Of course, as a counter argument, I did get what felt like a prodding e-mail from Airbnb the other day, with a message that I captured via Twitter:

Well, regardless of what I should or shouldn’t have been doing, what I *was* doing while in Barcelona was playing ESO, plus Fallout Shelter, watching YouTube, watching Luke Cage on Netflix, and other mostly indoor sorts of things, with occasional trips out every 3 or 4 days to walk around the city.  And I was there for a month, so I did get to see some stuff…

Architecture

Barcelona is — by far — the most architecturally interesting city that I’ve been in.  I mentioned early that the central city was rebuilt in the 1800s, so (a) it’s got a really modern layout and (b) it was rebuilt at a time when people like Gaudi were experimenting with architecture, and even his less experimental predecessors and peers still thought buildings shouldn’t just be functional (as opposed to the later, hideous, Bauhaus movement) but also aesthetically pleasing.  So, walking through most of Barcelona is a long series of these sorts of things:

Random street corner. All the minor intersections had corners that had the edges cut away — really so that it was easier to see cross traffic, but with the side benefit that you’d get these large, open intersections with nice views. And you can see: the buildings are all of varying styles, but they look nice, generally fit well together, and open onto pleasingly wide streets.

Another one.

And another one.

Tired of the pleasing-but-kind-of-traditional? Here, how’d you like to live in a digital circuit board? You can cosplay as characters from Tron.

A street near my place. Just *look* at the number of different styles on display here, but they all hang together well.

I could go on with these for a long time, but you get the idea.  And that’s not even getting to the fancy stuff, like that organic Gaudi building from above. Or this one:

The Casa Batlló is the one with the organic shapes and the dragon scale roof, just left of the sandy corner building. In any other city, the buildings around it would attract the attention; here, they’re pretty normal.

Or the grander intersections:

(I spent a lot of time at this intersection, trying to figure out where the hop-on-hop-off tour bus stopped. I never did find it there, and had to catch a different line on a different day.)

Or the plazas:

Or the same plaza in slightly better focus due to less movement. And with better jams. And pigeon tides:

Or other plazas:

A large plaza 1/2 a block off La Rambla, where one could sit outside and dine. I did not, because every time I tried to look at a menu, a staff member came up to attentively watch me as I read it. I’m not going to steal it! Go stare at someone else, I can’t concentrate! So I went elsewhere to eat, a place where they knew how to properly ignore customers. But still, this sort of space is the best sort of city outdoor dining: the kind away from traffic. Most big cities that have outdoor tables have them right next to passing traffic, and I *hate* that. How is noise and smog making *anything* better? Barcelona has a *ton* of outdoor dining, tucked away from the roads. Kudos for that.

And then there’s the public art:

These 2 women walking by this famous memorial to the great transporter malfunction of 2257, like it was nothing. For shame.

And random mini-parades:

Started walking north from my place and suddenly tripped across a little mini-parade, with musicians and horse drawn carriages and people in the carriages throwing candy out onto the street. Which sounds pretty cool, until you come back through a few hours later and your feet stick to the ground because of crushed and melted candy for blocks around the parade route, and for a day or two after. This may have been connected to something Carnival related; there were celebrations related to that, most notably about 1/2 an hour south along the coast in Sitges, the West Hollywood of Europe. But I didn’t see any in my area, except for a day that people dress up (like we would do at work for Halloween), and I ran into a random guy in a creditable Thor costume. Good enough.

And of course the food in Barcelona, on those few occasions that I ate out, was fantastic.

Flaherty’s Irish Pub. They made a decent Irish coffee, but I confess that the fish and chips and mashed peas were a bit more food than I really needed at one sitting.

If there were two areas where I felt like Barcelona suffered a little, the first was in the car exhaust pollution.  Spain has one of the poorer air qualities in Europe, and a long day walking around traffic tended to make me feel a bit ill.  (The 2 days I took the open double-decker tour buses around the city rather did me in.)  This is aggravated by the fact that it’s a dry climate — it rained a few days while I was there, but generally it was temperate and sunny — so the pollution isn’t washed out of the sky the way it would be in rainier places.  Seville was much the same, except that there were so many little, narrow streets with little or no traffic that I didn’t find myself breathing it as much.  So, that was a down side to Barcelona.

And the second was that it was (for them) winter, and most of the trees were barren of leaves.  This is hardly the city’s fault, but there were some promenades where I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out.

“La Rambla”, an avenue leading towards the water with a very wide central median on which were placed shopping booths and restaurant seating. It was nice enough when I was there, but imagine it in the summer, shaded by the leafy trees, with cool air coming up from the water. It must be lovely.

But, sleeping trees aside. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a city as intrinsically pretty. (Not including Barstow, of course. That wouldn’t even be a fair comparison.)

There were a few other highlights.

Park Guell

Park Guell is a park designed by Gaudi, just a little north of where I was staying.  I went there twice, the first time just walking by because they seemed to be charging admission and I wasn’t in the mood.  But by the second time, a couple of days later, I’d learned that only a museumy part of the park required the admission, and the bulk of the place was free to walk around in.  So I did.  It was nice enough, with lots of paved paths wandering through semi-arid vegetation, leading up to nice views over the city.  For the most part, I’m not super satisfied with my photos of the Gaudi bits, so I’m going to direct you to Google for those.  But this one of the entrance turned out Ok:

Looks very Disneyesque, so I approve.

I walked up a windy path that took me through a couple of neat arched tunnels along the hillside:

Not much to say here other than that they were designed to blend in with the hillside, and were pretty cool.

From somewhere above, I could hear flamenco guitar being played.

Eventually, I got up to the top of the park’s hill, and was rewarded with a pretty decent view of the city:

The view southeast. The hill in the distance, just right of center, is Sants-Montjuïc, where the National Museum of Art is, as well as soccer stadium and Olympic facilities. When we passed there on the tour bus, there was a whole Olympic museum thingy which I would have gone to but — ha ha ha ha ha! Sports. Right.

The little area at the top of the hill had trees and benches and I sat out for a while relaxing and waiting for the tourists to clear away from the edge so I could take a good panorama shot.  And so that I could join in a little 2 person play, that I captured afterwards and will present here, for your entertainment:

An Afternoon in Parc Guell

Scene: a retired American software architect sits cross legged on a stone bench, on  the top of a hill overlooking Park Guell. A young blonde American woman approaches him.

Blonde woman: ¿Hola?
Architect, warmly: Hola.
Blonde woman: ¿Hablas Ingles?
Architect: Si.
Blonde woman: Ah. Um, ¿donde esta Park Wall?
Architect: I have no idea where the park wall is, sorry.
Blonde woman:<Startled reaction to my fluent English>
FIN

Note: It occurred to me sometime later that she was probably not asking about some bit of park art or architecture called the “Park Wall”, but was in fact asking me where “Parc Guell” was — a possibility that had not crossed my mind at the time because (a) I was too distracted by amusement at our conversation, and (b) Parc Guell was where we _were_.

Second note: on the off chance that you think that I answered “Si” in order to toy with this young woman, you do me too much credit.  Not that I wouldn’t have toyed with her, amiably, but I am not that quick on my feet.  She asked me “¿Habla Ingles?”, in Spanish, and even with as little Spanish as I know, “Si” popped out reflexively purely because of context and free association. But, once she got to the longer question, I had no way to easily construct a response in the same context, and reverted to English.  The comedy was just a happy side effect, and thinking that I did it deliberately is like seeing a face in the bark of an oak tree or divine agency in lightning. So, the next time I do something that doesn’t make sense to you or you suspect ulterior motive, just remember that my consciousness is just your pareidolia, and I am merely relative to the observer.

A final shot, from my way out, taken along a western outcrop of the park looking down at its entrance. Just thought it looked nice.

Out of the park and on the way down, I passed a church (behind me), El Real Santuario de San José de la Montaña, dedicated to “Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary’s husband and Jesus’ adoptive father.” I thought that was pretty cool; no one thinks about Joseph, who took in someone else’s son and raised him like his own despite (according to some gospels) the kid doing some freaky scary stuff like Billy Mumy in that Twilight Zone episode. So, kudos to Joseph.

The Bus Tour

I did one of those hop-on-hop-off bus thingys, about 10 days after I got there — I normally like to do them the day after I arrive but, as described, I was busy.  I bought a 2-day ticket, and rode both days, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with this one.  Partly because of the levels of car exhaust around me, particular when we hit some road work and spent 20 minutes going nowhere.  And partly because the recorded tour announcements were pretty bland, and very intermittent.  So, definitely a fail on that one.  I did get a handful of amusing shots, though:

My PokemonGO app identified this as Juan Miro’s Woman and Bird. You are now as informed as I was, more so if you bother to read the link about it, though I cannot advise it.

Looks like Home Depot had a sale on garden ornaments….

Some dramatic lighting for the National Art Museum.

The Olympic Needle, aka the Montjuïc Communications Tower, located in the Olympic park and used to transmit coverage of the game.

The tour bus did take us down to the docks and along the waterfront, some of which was a bit industrial but got better towards where the cruise ships docked and then improved thereafter. But honestly I found the waterfront kind of dull.  The best part was on the way back into the center, where we passed this building.

This is not a building. It’s a painted facade concealing the building while the building is worked on. Love. That.

Note: even as poor a selection as these pictures are, they’re still all from Day 1 of the bus tour. On Day 2, I took a different tour route, and it was so dull that I took almost no pictures and they’re not worth preserving here.  Ah well, you win some you lose some.

The National Art Museum

Even *I* could scarcely visit Barcelona without going to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the National Art Museum.  Especially since they have a free admission day once a month, and this was that day!

Just a few pics back, I had a picture of the front of this building, taken from the tour bus approaching it on the street below the hill. This is from the east side. It’s a large, impressive building.

I really should have taken the subway to get here.  It was a lovely day for the walk, but walking the 2-1/2 miles there, walking around the museum for 3 hours, and then walking all the way back was a bit much; that return trip was just a slog.

The view from the front steps, northwest across the city, was very cool. There seemed to be some sort of athletic event going on below (I feel vaguely like it may have been a special Olympics sort of thing), but I didn’t go down to be sure. I think I can see Parc Guell from here, the lesser green hill in the distance, over the head of the right hand statue.

Inside, they had a lot of medieval art, like this:

A Fresco of the Conquest of Mallorca.

And this Pinterest collection of stills from a Medieval rave.

This portrait of Quasimodo and his mom was unexpected, but touching.

You have *no idea* what humans look like, do you?

Look, I know that feet are hard to draw, but yikes! Not that the rest of them are much better. (Little known fact: Christ could cure leprosy and raise you from the dead, but had no remedy for being cross-eyed. True story.)

“Aaaagh, help, I’m on fire!”
“Would you like a lollipop?”
“No, gods, why would you ask that? Water! Help! Aaaagh!”

The angel cleverly realized that if he pinned Mary’s cloak to the wall with thrown darts, she couldn’t flee from the Annunciation.

Um… Did no one explain to you how crucifixes work?

The Duke’s tickle parties became increasingly elaborate, until Christ himself stepped in and put a stop to them.

This were mah pet rat, wot ah found on street yesterday. His name were Edward, an him were Emperor of Bulgaria. An also, ah has a donkey in mah undergarments.

He knew there was no point in pretending; he’d farted, and everyone else knew it.

Beyond the medieval art, the museum also had a bunch of modern stuff, though most of it wasn’t (to me) as interesting.  Still, there were some exceptions:

The Flash comic, where he battles the supervillain Siamese Rooster, is one of the classics of the genre, and it was cool to see one of the pivotal panels captured here.

I don’t know what sort of fever dream is being captured here, but…

I like the way the Mystical Dream Horse is breaking the 4th wall with that “Can you believe this bullshit?” look.

This wry commentary on the state of modern medicine would be too advanced for some critics, but an expert such as myself can clearly see the underlying meaning of an artist just trying to pay his rent. Well done, my talented friend. Well done.

Oh, wow! This is seriously one of my favorite Japanese woodcuts! It was a welcome breath of the familiar to find it here.

Ok, that’s a really nice vase. More of that please!
(Narrator: “There was no more of that.”)

The museum had this really cool atrium, with a gift shop and a cafe on the lower level, that I think was sometimes used for plays and concerts. I almost had a snack at the cafe, but it was a bit crowded there, and after a few hours of walking and museuming, I was really pretty much done with people, and things — and that’s pretty much all the museum had. So I left for the hour’s walk home.

And, leaving:

So, that was, by and large, my month.  A bit overviewy, but really as much as is needed considering how little I actually got out and around.  Honestly, I’m not sure how much more I would have done even if I hadn’t also been doing separate touring in a fantasy landscape.  I mean, yeah, there were more museums I could have seen.  I could have eaten out more.  I certainly could have walked more, and actually should have — though the traffic exhaust kind of put an upper limit on that.  In truth, Barcelona did not get as much of my attention as it really deserved but, hey, Life happens. (Or, Second Life happens, in this case.)

And it’s a beautiful city, it really is, hands down the most objectively artistic environment that I’ve been in yet.  Imagine New York or San Francisco, but wider streets, super decorative building facades in thousands of variations, and few buildings over 4-6 stories so that you don’t feel hemmed in by them, you feel welcomed.  If you’re in the neighborhood, I can highly recommend the visit.

I woke up early on Friday, March 17, left at around 7am, walked down to the subway station that I’d arrived from, took it to the Airport shuttle bus terminal at the Plaça Espanya (near the National Art Museum), caught the shuttle easily, and was at the airport after a 30 minute ride.  Then, off to Edinburgh at 10:40, arriving a little after noon — as will soon be told.

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The Hermit of Seville

So, here I am, returning to Seville at last. I have to warn you, this entry can not possibly be as entertaining as the first Seville entry was.  Seriously. I just reread that entry, to remind myself of what I covered, and I have entirely intimidated myself now.  Like, how is me-now supposed to compete with me-then? That guy was good!  Gotta tell you, feeling Imposter Syndrome in the company of yourself is really taking it to the next level.  Go, me!  Only the greatest determination induces me to continue writing this and not simply walk away.

Determination, and the hope that getting back to my blog will get me sleeping again.  It’s been mostly 5-6 hours a night for a few weeks now, and I still haven’t spotted the source of stress that surely is causing it.  Of course, it might simply be the day/night cycle here in Edinburgh.

It’s warm enough here that I have to leave the window and shutters partly open, and so I get street noise — and possibly just too much light in the morning, rather than internal stress. Sigh.

Anyway, it’s rough when you feel Imposter Syndrome around your own writing (and software), and I rather suspect that it’s only going to get worse.  “Oh, yeah, that Charles-in-his-30s guy sure did write some great software.  Me? No, I haven’t touched that stuff in years.  These days, I don’t even remember how to set the clock on my VCR. What do you mean, ‘That’s not a VCR?’ I guess that would explain why my Duran Duran tapes don’t play on it anymore, damn it.  Well, could you set the clock on it anyway?  Since President Snowden moved us to Daylight Metric Time, I never know when to eat my tapioca.”

By the way, speaking of President Snowden (and, by extension, politics), my Aunt Florida sent me this pretty amazing article written by one of the long time Fox News commentators, about how its shows are as carefully constructed as WWE wrestling.  Independent of one’s political party, it makes for a fascinating read.  It also rather supports my longstanding view that Rupert Murdoch is not a conservative media magnate, he’s a businessman; he doesn’t care what “truths” his channels are promoting, just that they generate reliable revenue.  I’ve always said that if Rupert thought he could make money on a Baby Harp Seal channel, we’d be getting our warm, fuzzy, daily news from baby harp seals.  It’s just product to him, and any negative opinions about the net result are more a condemnation of unrestrained capitalism and greed than they are of the political ideology that the greed is riding into the ground.  Anyway, it’s a pretty cool insight into how that process works, and a reminder that there’s a *lot* of PR manipulation going on in our systems right now, with the usual motivations of money and power.  (Like the amazing Facebook manipulation driven by Cambridge Analytica.)  Reading and viewing widely, from sources across the political spectrum, is one of the few counters to it.  (As is reading nothing at all, I suppose, but ignorance is rarely a useful solution.)

But, if all that leaves you a bit tense or worried, don’t be. There’s always this.

 

Seville

So, in my prior post, I covered my first few days wandering around Seville, mostly looking for groceries. And a yoga mat (twice).  This seems like a good time to repeat the map of Seville that I posted then, for orientation purposes:

Central Seville. The old city is on the eastern side of the river (you can still find large chunks of the old wall around it). The train station, Sevilla Santa Justa, is circled on the right, and my Airbnb place is the circled star near the top on the right (to the right of the Basilica de la Macarena, where I assume they have dancing at church services, like Pentacostals).

I’d like to say that I did other things during my stay there, so I shall: “I did other things during my stay there.”  It’s not true of course, but it feels very affirming to say.

As I pointed out in the last post, my time was soon subsumed by Elder Scrolls Online — not exclusively, but largely.  Let it not be said that, when I get into something, I don’t commit.

When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

— Shunryu Suzuki

But, despite my own personal Burning Season, I did get to wander about the city, sometimes looking for groceries, sometimes following my walking tours app, sometimes just picking an arbitrary point and walking there because I needed the movement.  (It’s very annoying, that I trained from early childhood to sit unmoving for hours at a time, generally while reading, and became quite good at it. And now, all grown up and with time on my hands, if I do that too much, I WILL DIE!!!! Hardly seems sporting.)

So, here’s a bunch of stuff that I ran across while wandering Seville, 70% of which looked like this:

Narrow alleys with pastel buildings and (one hopes) lots of summer shade.

And 20% of which looked like this:

Wider street, with sidewalk, cars, and cafes.

And 10% looked like this: wide arcades with churches and trams and quaint local coffee shops and street musicians playing ethnic music:

Made me nostalgic for Disneyland, this did.

That was taken on avenue running southeast from the Plaza Nueva (marked with a star on the map above, almost at the center of the map and just above a little blue box that indicates a tram stop), until it reaches another tram and subway stop at Puerto Jerez by the river, near to the Torch Coffee Roasters (where I went looking for some decent coffee beans).  Google, for some reason, does a terrible job of showing that this street exists, unless you really zoom in — but despite that omission, it’s a lovely street:

The Plaza Nueva. This was a nice place to sit out with a cup of coffee. I reach that conclusion by deduction based upon observation, rather than by experiment, as I only sat out there without coffee. But I have a high level of confidence in my conclusion.

A building along that avenue. I’ve mentioned before how pathetic most U.S. architecture is, right? Of course I have. Consider that reiterated.

I mentioned that there was a church along this avenue, right? It’s this, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, aka Catedral de Sevilla. No big deal, just 80 chapels, 500 masses per day (as of 1896). Thought I’d mention it. You can see some more pics here, and interiors here.

I never quite made it inside that church, because I was distracted by finally catching enough Magikarp to evolve a Gyarados!

It takes 400 Magikarp points to evolve one into a Gyarados, so I was super happy to finally get one, and named it after the city itself. Seville was worth visiting for that happy achievement alone!

(I also caught my first Ditto here — also very exciting — but that was as nothing compared to getting the Gyarados! Woo-hoo!)

The other end of the avenue, near what seems to be a subway station. I never needed to take the subway, but it’s good to know that it exists. Also, again: architecture. Come on with the come on!

And then, of course, continuing past on the left of that orange-banded building, you reach the river:

This is scenic in direct proportion to (a) what season it is and (b) how fully you are in the shade when you view it. In the sun, on February 1st, it was quite nice. I’m pretty sure that as I write this on June 14th, it’s another story entirely.

Of course, not all of Seville looked this quaint — some bits were more modern, or a bit more run down and decorated in Decaying Modern. Like, this was literally the first place on the other side the river:

♬ There was a plaza, ♫ had some kitsch, ♫ and Bingo was its name-o. ♬

And this thoroughfare ran out from that plaza. I mean, the streets are clean and all, and it’s not hideous — but would you want to live there? Cheek by jowl with hundreds of other hive-homeys in modern pillboxes, above constant traffic? On one side of the river, beauty, and on the other, despair, as if divided by the River Styx. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps they’re perfectly happy there. *I wouldn’t be, but it takes all kinds, etc, etc.

On the other hand, they *did* have what is clearly a Euthanasia shop just down the street, so maybe I’m right after all.

I headed back across the river pretty quickly, and was rewarded with street art:

Like this bit of poignant commentary on the burdens of fashion — and it was on the side of a church, no less! I was impressed at their willingness to display graphic cultural commentary like this.

All these years that I’ve heard this song, it never once occurred to me that it referred to a street. I’m not sure why this street was such a big deal, it didn’t look special. Maybe the songwriter grew up here? Ah well, learn something new every day.

I suppose I should mention, since much of this walking about was motivated by grocery shopping, that I did find places that sold decent coffee — the regular grocery store coffee that I mentioned last time wasn’t actually that bad, but the organic shops had better.  They also had some decent organic beers — I’ve had mixed success with organic beers in the past, but Seville had a nice selection, and the regular market had Guinness, so all was right with the world.  Though there was one beer that I gave a pass:

Rule of thumb: the more high-concept a beer gets, the worse it generally is. (There are notable exceptions, like anything from Dogfish Head brewery, but it’s pretty true in the general case.) It’s like Christian Rock — the quality of the music is generally sacrificed in the interest of driving home the message. In this case… no. I don’t even like “chocolate” beer, or “coffee” beer. If you think I’m going to like “weed” beer, you really are high.
(BTW, ratebeer.com agrees, and gives it 1 star out of 10. Ouch!)

Mind you, weed beer wasn’t the only thing I deliberately passed up:

“JapoKitos”? Which are, somehow, Japanese-themed, though only the branding suggests that? And are fronted by a malevolent looking tween wielding cat-themed fake chopsticks? I give up.

Although in retrospect, I probably should have purchased and consumed the JapoKitos in preference to this:

At the time, I was jonesing for ice cream, and could not find my usual vanilla or coffee, just weird strawberry stuff, or Ben & Jerry’s There’s So Many Flavors In Here That We Just Gave Up And Picked A Random Name Out of the Dictionary Of Cultural Literacy. (I hate that flavor.) But I saw this and thought, “Well, ‘leche’ is milk, and it’s Häagen-Dazs, how bad can it be?” All. All of the bad. “Dulce De Leche”, it turns out, means caramel, and whatever you may think about the virtues of caramel, throw them out. Because it turns out that when you mix caramel with already sugar-intensive ice cream, the result is an insulin-shock inducing swamp of concentrated candy that would send even a Japanese person running for the vomitorium. It. Was. Horrible. First bite: “Huh, ok, not what I was expecting.” Second bite: “Ok.” Third bite: “Yeah, really not my thing, I think.” Fourth bite: “Must. Not. Waste. Food.” For the avoidance of doubt: I did not finish the pint.

But I find that I’ve gotten a bit derailed by the food topic.  Back to my walkabout.  I have to say, I found Seville to be generally a very nice walking city.  The car exhaust was maybe a bit much on the main thoroughfares, but you could avoid much of that by sticking to the narrower streets, of which there were many: winding, disorganized, chaotic lanes of varying sizes running through seemingly endless blocks of ancient, pastel apartment blocks, opening up occasionally into tiny plazas and shopping arcades.

Perfect example: a random little plaza, with fountain and orange trees, and with shops and homes around it. There’s no not loving that, none at all.

If you think that’s too small and quaint, and you’re impatient for something larger and more dramatic, just hold your horses. (Or let these guys do it for you.)

And if you want really dramatic:

I tripped across this one day, and I have no idea what it’s supposed to be, but I love it and I have dubbed it Eggo Plaza, the name by which it will henceforth be known to all who may ask.

Or, if you want something smaller scale, the shop windows were often entertaining, though I wasn’t always sure of the motivation behind them.

I’m not sure what shopping demographic is served by selling figures of ceramic turnips, Depressed Jesus, Disney dwarves, and Darth Cleric, but I have to assume that they know their business. (Knowledge that I find myself grateful not to have.)

“Please come in and buy our totally official, and not at all home made, brand name merchandise. Sweatshop-free since 2015!”

Did I mention the magic wand shop down the street from me? I totally meant to go in there and ask what sort of cores they use, but I never got around to it. Plus, the language barrier. (And, I really can not carry anything else with me, my pack is heavy enough already.)

There were a *lot* of little restaurants that I passed on these walks.  I kept looking for a place that served rabbit — which I assumed would be labeled “conejo” on any menus — as part of my goal to eat The Rabbit of Seville. (Damn, but it’s hard not to stop writing and watch that all the way through.)  Unfortunately, despite some serious looking, I was completely unable to find one in the month that I was there.  I did find lots of these:

A lot of places made dishes from something called “tapas”. I’m not sure what animal “tapas” comes from, but given the way some meats disagree with me, it seemed like a good idea to just avoid it.

Fortunately, there was an alternative:

O’Neill’s Irish Pub, which Google Maps will actually let you virtually walk into, here!  I came back here at least 2 more times.  I always sat inside — I hate sitting outside next to busy traffic, and this was a super busy intersection.  I heard the Irish bartender talking about the weather with another patron, and he said that sometimes they get hot, dry, sandy winds all the way from Africa — another reason to get out of Spain before summer.  The burger, with bacon and egg on it, was super good, btw. 😀

(Side note: Murphy, my current host in Edinburgh, says that *they* sometimes get sandy winds from Africa!  It comes as very fine dust, carried in the upper atmosphere.  I guess that’s not any weirder than 25% of San Francisco’s pollution coming from China, but still. Would not have guessed that.)

One of the nice things about a lot of these older cities that I’ve been in, is that you continually trip across interesting things, just in random wandering.

This little side street near O’Neil’s Pub particularly struck me. It was like a street that in most cities would have been a run-down side alley, but they’d kept it up, kept it clean and scrubbed, and it stayed quite nice as a result. So, yaay that.

There’s very little of that in large modern cities.  Like, I can walk for ages in Manhattan and never see anything out of the ordinary — it’s mostly all of a piece, and that piece is generally a bit worn.  San Francisco, though I love it, is much the same. It’s city, and there may be oases where you get something different, but mostly it’s very planned and constant.  I have found that less true in the older cities, and I’m not quite sure why.  At least some of it has to be that their old stuff stands out to me as different, and noticeable, because it comes out of a different tradition than I’m used to — whereas most of the new, modern stuff that younger cities are made out of reflects the same broader (American-dominated) world culture that I’m used to seeing everywhere else.  Maybe some of it is because they’re old societies that have had their roots in the same neighborhoods for centuries and learned to keep up the place they live in, so their back alleys look prettier and don’t look as ignored?  Maybe because they’re so Old, the New has to move in slowly, and the controlled interplay between them creates a wider variety in what you see roaming around, than what you see in more purely new cities.

Of course, not all of that interplay really, um, works:

At the end of a long day of Nude Newspaper Selling, you need a beer. I don’t judge.

On a wall plastered with concert posters, this made me laugh. It’s one letter off a Japanese term for — well, this is a family blog so let’s just say, “little boys” and leave it at that. I’m not sure the artist would be pleased by the association. 🙂

The Isla Mágica water park across the river was closed — doubtless due to the bitter winter weather — but it apparently features a sort of German beer garden with what appears to be a German beer drinker, with barrel, suspended in mid-air. (For reasons which I’m sure were clear to the park’s architect, perhaps while in his cups.)

The water park was part of a larger stretch of park that ran for quite some length along the west bank of the river (paralleled by a narrow park-ish embankment on the east side).  Much of it was very pretty to look at and be in.

The south-of-the-water-park section had some developed river-pier areas, though in this stretch they seemed to be used more for jogging than for anything actually nautical, despite the water traffic passing them.

It also had some sections that quite terrified me!

Noooooooooooooo!!!!!!

This was taken February 3rd.  The beginning of February! For Pete’s sake, what do I have to do to avoid Spring?!

Thankfully, I was due to leave on the 17th, and Seville is nowhere near as green as Zagreb, Croatia, was.  But still… my Post-Traumatic Spring Disorder runs deep.

The other thing this park had was, as usual, tons of orange trees.  The oranges were simply falling ripe onto the ground, clearly underutilized, so I took the risk of violating the public order and picked one.  A little research quickly turned up why the city’s ubiquitous oranges were underutilized:

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I have that genetic variant (in common with much of my family — in the traditional manner) that means I don’t really detect bitter tastes.  It contributes to my fondness for dark beer, dark chocolate, strong coffee, and other things typically described as being bitter. I barely notice that aspect of them.

This, I noticed.  Wow.  It was an interesting experience, and I don’t regret it, but thereafter I bought my oranges at the grocery store like everybody else.

Curiously, now that I think of it, I still can’t really conjure up what “bitter” tastes like.  I mean, I recall that orange being a really strong, not very pleasant taste, but I can’t bring it to mind the way I can sweet tastes, or savory, or tart, etc.  I remember discussing this with Brandon a few years ago, that I was supposedly had a poor ability to taste bitter and that I couldn’t even bring to mind what bitter tasted like.  So we did a test where we drank a beer with a strong hop taste, that would be considered bitter — and there wasn’t anything in it that particularly stood out to me, versus other beers of its style.  I could vaguely detect something in its flavor that was kind of like something that marmalade had.  But I still couldn’t describe what that was, and I cannot recall it now.  I guess those neurons in my brain never needed to develop, because they so rarely got that input.  Kind of weird, but kind of cool, too. You can do a lot worse than going through life never really noticing the bitter parts.

On the western side of this bit of park was a gated-off complex with a futuristic look and no clear purpose:

This is exactly the sort of location they’d use for films like Gattaca, or Battle for the Planet of the Apes, where you need some futuristic city backdrop, and people in weirdly cut suits walking up and down the stairs. I’m sure it was something much more innocuous, like a government lab for developing super-viruses.

There was also a fair amount of graffiti, some of it fairly complex:

I always appreciate good graffiti. The kind that are just lazy signature scrawls do nothing for me, but there was a lot of this better sort along this stretch of the river, and it was pretty cool.

And some of it was super complex:

Sines of the times.

Making liters out of mole hills.

Oooo, you’re a rebel, scrawling graffiti about force and change. Get a job, hippie.

The north end of this long park was much wider, spread out across what would have been a number of city blocks, and it had what appeared to be proper  groves of oranges, kids’ playgrounds, adult exercise equipment, lots of trees and grass, a tiny functional train circuit.  And yet, somehow, it managed to never be out of earshot of nearby freeways and heavy-traffic roads.  I’ve got really no patience for that sort of thing; traffic noise is not restful to me, and whatever peace might be derived from pleasant trees and grass is completely wrecked by the distant roar of 18-wheelers. (Similarly, city cafes with outdoor seating next to busy streets.  I do not get the appeal of eating next to the noise and stink of traffic.  I mean, maybe there are people who just never get outside, so sitting in *any* outdoor setting is worth it to them.  But, if so, wow. That sounds painful, man.)

And then there was this:

My PokemonGo app calls this point of interest “Huevo de Coloń”, or The Columbus Egg. I don’t know if this is the official name but it’s descriptive, so good enough. I have mentioned before, my reaction to monuments to Columbus, so I won’t repeat it here. But the egg is weird enough that I can’t entirely disapprove.

Though the day I walked this park was rather long and tiring, and least I had something cheery awaiting me at home:

This mead, and other beers, are apparently made by a brewery in the Seville area, despite the Nordic name. I ran across a little beer shop that carried them, bought a small variety, and enjoyed them all. 🙂

There was another park across the city that wasn’t as large but seemed more quiet:

I liked this place, but it was completely without grass, and I got the strong impression that they’d simply given up trying to keep it alive in the summer and settled for packed clay as a lower maintenance solution. Can’t say that I blame them.

I took that shot on my way to the Plaza de España, an impressive complex of gorgeous buildings (mostly serving as government offices), tiled courtyards, water, and parks.  Which I took a ton of pictures of, only to discover that even the Wikipedia page for the place has better pictures.  Well, pictures that are at least as good, lets say that.  Of course, Wikipedia doesn’t have this:

I cannot recommend resting on those benches, if the men’s and women’s toilets are where the sign seems to indicate.

I did capture a couple of pictures that seem nice enough to be worth saving — though I don’t dare do a Google Image search, where I’m sure even they would be put to shame.

Come on, that’s just pretty, right? I mean, I don’t get the people who chose to rent a rowboat to go back and forth along the tiny canal. And I bet the stone & tile plaza is bloody hot in the summer. But other than that, it’s charming!

The base of the building, running along the curved edge below the arches, is a series of little decorated niches, alternating sitting areas and small fountains (which weren’t running at this time of year).

Eventually, I pieced together that each niche represented a different region of Spain, and had little painted scenes that reflected important events for that region. The ones with the little fountains might have been nice to sit next to, if the fountains had been running and if you had a lot of sunblock on.

The surrounding park was also very nice, with trees and benches and fountains and this:

The little waterfall was nice, and there were nearby benches to sit out and listen to the water and not hear the traffic, and I even nodded off a little resting there. The hill had a little gazebo on the top, and I wanted to take a panorama from the gazebo. But there was a couple snogging up there and they lingered until I gave up and left.

On the walk home, I stopped at a gelato shop on the Av. de la Constitución, and they made the most amazing construction out of my 2-flavor request:

I almost hated to ruin this by eating it. Almost. (It was as yummy as you could expect.) I’m not sure what they called this, but a gelato rose by any other name would taste as sweet.

I should point out that, in visiting Seville, I’d wanted to do 2 things specifically: eat some rabbit, and get a haircut.  As reported, I failed at the first of these, but, thankfully, was successful at the second, about a week before I left.

Trip not wasted, and a decent haircut out of it. Yaay, me. 😁

And that’s about it.

Leaving

So, on February 17th, I woke up early, tidied whatever I hadn’t tidied the day before, left the keys on the counter, and headed off to the train station.  I don’t think I ever saw my host after the day that I checked in, but the place was more like apartments than a shared space, so that wasn’t surprising.  But we exchanged a few e-mails, got along well in them, and left each other nice reviews, so it all worked out.

My train left at 8:50am, so I retraced my arrival path, got there in plenty of time, grabbed a second-breakfast sandwich for later, and caught the train for Barcelona as expected. And that was Seville.

I liked Seville.  It would be too warm to spend much of my year in, but I could see going back sometime.  Probably won’t be this lifetime, but almost certainly the next, for like a weekend or something.  (I mean, Elder Scrolls Online is releasing new content all the time, and I just don’t see how I could fit another visit in, this lifetime. You’ve got to be practical.)

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Had I but world enough, and time

First, sorry for the earlier blog post false alarm.  I went to save my progress on the draft, and hit the wrong button and published it instead.  My bad. ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯

Catching up

Ok, so it’s been a while since the last entry. As you are doubtless aware. My last entry was Feb 4th, a couple of weeks into my stay in Seville, and my time was starting to free up a bit. I was doing less gaming: leaving Skyrim, playing a little Fallout Shelter on the iPad, and doing a little more Elder Scrolls Online but not a great deal. I was doing yoga every morning, doing a little walking around the city (mostly, but not exclusively, in search of groceries), watching a bit more TV, and thankfully starting to read properly again. It was good to have the time back!

And then it all came crashing down.

Time-Suck #1:

The Elder Scrolls Online folks released an update in mid-January that added the ability to buy player homes in the game (with in-game gold or with real-world cash), and to add on to them, build structures, and decorate. This sort of thing is like crack cocaine to me — you may remember me mentioning the settlement building functionality in Fallout 4? I spent countless hours building up small towns around post-apocalyptic Boston, and setting the settlers up with food, water, and electricity, defenses, housing, etc. There wasn’t a settlement in Boston that wasn’t a fully functioning seed of a restored civilization when I was done with them, and it was time consuming and awesome. I’ve loved planning houses and building since I was a kid — age 8, designing underground homes based on stuff I’d read in my dad’s hippie, alternative living magazine (Mother Earth? Mother Jones? I no longer remember the magazine’s name, but I’m almost certain it was Mother Something. It was 1970.).  And I spent weeks building Skyrim housing add-ons.  Software architecture scratches much the same design itch, but in the last 5 years of building housing mods for Skyrim, settlements in Fallout, and now home building in ESO, I’m starting to suspect that I may have missed my calling as an actual building architect. Ah well, next lifetime, perhaps.

So, I buy a convenient home in the game, and then have to start roaming the landscape searching for building materials, and building a deck, and lights, and fireplaces, and laundry rooms, and all of that. In preparation for this blog post, I spent a little time recording what the place looked like before:

(Note: this is a little choppy at the start, thanks to running the game and the recording software at the same time and straining the system. It settles down after 20-30 seconds, after I leave the starting town.)

And after:

Mum recently talked me into entering the place into a little housing contest that one of our player guilds was having, and then she played hostess to the judges (since it was the middle of the night, my time, and I was asleep). I entered it with some reluctance, but Mum is quite the saleswoman (to me, and to the judges) and I took first place! 🙂 So, time well spent.

Time-Suck #2:

Just as I was winding down on home-building (I continue to tweak the place, but the basic work on it was done in the first month), ESO started an anniversary event for the release of one of their add-ons, the Thieves’ Guild DLC.

(DLC is “downloadable content”, extra stuff you can add to the main game after its release. Most big games have a few big DLC packages that you can buy, to keep the game fresh and interesting, and never-ending games like MMOs (Massively Multi-player Online games) will keep adding stuff indefinitely.)

I’d never played the Thieves’ Guild DLC (nor a couple of the others), because I was sunk into Fallout 4 when it came out, but there was some special stuff you could get if you played it during this anniversary event, so I thought that I probably should start it. I’ll omit all of the riveting details of my gaming experience and just say that it was, in fact, fun. And it took about a month, getting me from Seville to Barcelona.

Time-Suck #3:

Just as that was winding down, they started an April Fools event, the Jester Festival! More fun — and rather silly — stuff to do, and… well, let’s just say that you could get lots of fun/cool things if you did that stuff, repeatedly, every day, with every character you’d created for the game.

If this sounds painfully repetitive… you need not check your hearing, because how it sounds is pretty much exactly how it ended up being. I have a built-in inclination to try to optimize results, and if I can get the most stuff by doing a repetitive thing for a bit, then I’ll do it without thinking twice. Unfortunately, this meant spending about 3 hours a day for the whole month of the event — just doing the repetitive, administrative tasks, without even playing any new, adventure-y content — and I was really feeling pretty done with the whole affair as the end of that month approached. (This covered mid-Barcelona to my first couple of weeks in Edinburgh.)

Time-Suck #4:

Then they announced a Brand New Event, this time for the anniversary of the game’s original release 3 years ago. More. Stuff. You. Could. Get. Now, I was actually starting to get a bit cross. “OMG, give me at least a short break between events, it’s too much!” But, if you play the game, it was really good stuff to get! So, gritting my teeth slightly, I started the new event, running all of my characters (I had 8, and made a 9th for the event) through variations of the same activities every day. There were actually a lot more activities I *could* have been doing daily, but I stuck to the handful that got me the most rewards in the shortest amount of time; they were really as much as I could handle. (Have pity for my poor mother, who has something like 40 characters spread across 3-4 accounts. And understand that at least I come by the trait honestly!)

For what it’s worth, much of this was, in fact, fun. I did actually manage to get a lot of long-term game goals accomplished during this event, which made me very happy, and I’ve been getting the benefit of that time investment ever since. And I spent some serious time with that brand new 9th character, and got him quite advanced in abilities and he’s going to be very useful for certain types of game activities. But by the end of all of this, I was about ready to bite the head off lead game designer.

This was roughly weeks 3 through 6 in Edinburgh. Around weeks 3-4, I deleted Fallout Shelter from my iPad; I don’t know how much time I’d spent building up my Shelter in the 20 months or so the game had been out, but it was just too much of a time-suck in addition to the other things. So, I threw it out. This may be reassuring to anyone who worries about game-addiction: once the experience stops being fun, I move on. (To another game, but whatever. Shut up.)

Time-Suck #5:

“Newly announced: ‘Morrowind’, a massive, new addition to the Elder Scrolls Online, coming out June 6th! Help us beta test the game! Here’s your exclusive key to download the pre-release software!”

Aaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

No. Uh-uh. I’m done. By this time, it was the end of April and I needed my space. So I dialed back. I did some beta testing, and it was cool, and I reported a bunch of bugs that I found, and it was nice being able to help them out. But it’s nothing like the time I was spending before, maybe 2-3 hours a day, and I start getting out more, walking more, reading more. And I think that’s the level I’m going to be at for a while, even if they add new events down the line. I expect I’ll cycle up and down a bit on time spent in the game, a bit more when I have a goal I want to accomplish, less in between. That works for me.

They released the expansion early, to people who preordered it, so at the time of this writing I’ve been playing it for about a week and my previous time balance is what I’ve been maintaining, quite easily. A little more, a little less, depending on the day, but it’s been much more balanced.

And that gives me time to catch up on the blog. In theory. No promises. We’ll see how it goes. 🙂

Where Am I Now?

Currently, we heading towards the end of May — at least, that’s what my friends in Scotland are hoping is the case, but the election is still 2 weeks away. Still, Labour is doing really well in the polls, after coming back from terrible polling before the snap election was called. And Jeremy Corbyn had a great and widely watched TV interview, back-to-back with a terrible Theresa May interview, so that helps.  Fingers crossed, that the UK should get back to principled and competent leadership. (At least one of us should escape!)  In case it wasn’t clear, I am in Edinburgh.

I was originally planning to be here for 2 months, while I possibly looked for a place to possibly stay longer term. But getting a permanent place here has proven to be impractical, as neither of the conventional options works for me. I can’t really rent, because I can only stay in the UK (on a standard visa) for 6 months a year, and renters don’t want to rent to someone who plans to then (effectively) sublet the place on Airbnb for 1/2 the year. And, I can’t really buy: paying cash isn’t an option when my money’s in longer-term investments, and mortgages would be hard to get (local banks don’t want to lend to non-citizens, U.S. banks don’t want to lend on foreign properties).

And, as I’ve had time to let the idea sit, I’m not sure that I actually want to get a place for a longer term. I *love* Edinburgh, it’s my favorite city in the world so far, but there are still other places to see — and certainly cheaper places to live. (My spending rate has been too high this year, and I need to head back towards my original plan of staying in cheaper parts of the world, in keeping with my ‘Jane Austen heroine’ lifestyle.) And, as much as I like being in nice places while I’m in the place, I like moving on to the next new thing even more once I’m on the road again. Which, I guess, means that no matter which I’m doing — staying put or traveling — I like that thing the most, at the time that I’m doing it. And so I guess I can’t complain about that too much. Hence, continuing with my travels really rings more true to me now. It took me a while to resolve that in my head, but I eventually did.

But I decided that, even if I wasn’t moving here, having a break where I didn’t have to move around would be nice, so shortly after I arrived I talked to my host here, Murphy, to see what he thought of my staying an additional 2 months, for 4 months total, and leaving in mid-July. He said, essentially, that I was genial enough, so sure, and that’s what we’re doing.

That means I’ll be here, in Edinburgh’s New Town, a few blocks north of Princes Street, until July 17th.

Where Am I Next?

OMG, I spent so much time and worry trying to figure this out. Lest you think that all I have been doing for the last 5 months was playing games. Which, in fairness, is probably what I was implying above. Granted, I was mostly gaming. But I also:

  • Watched the new season of Sense8 just after it was released (goaded into timely viewing by my friend Jenni, who wanted someone to discuss it with)
  • Finally watched the 1980s movie A Boy And His Dog, based on the Harlan Ellison scifi novel. Its tale of a boy (late teens / early 20s, played by Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog (played by some sarcastic curmudgeon of a voice actor) surviving in a low-budget, Mad Max, post-WW4 wasteland was one of the inspirations behind the recent Fallout games. The movie is terrible. Teerrrriiibbblllee. Its only redeeming virtue is that it has a happy ending. Of a sort. I liked it. (Read the wiki for spoilers.)
  • Watched the new Iron Fist series, the next part of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration.  It was… not good. In short, weak writing and plotting, and a lead actor who was supposed to be the world’s best martial artist and instead looked like a sulky harem boy.  I’d have gladly watched a series about a sulky harem boy, but not one pretending to be a martial artist.  They couldn’t have found *one* young actor with real martial arts chops? One who could hold a basic form?  Jeeze.  I’d had high hopes for that series, knowing the brilliant comics it was based on and knowing how good the other Marvel/Netflix series were, and I was very disappointed.  🙁
  • Read a few books, some of which I’ll mention in these blog posts.
  • A *lot* of Twitter. As usual, really — though in the depths of ESO, I mostly read a pared down subset of my usual feed because I just didn’t have time otherwise.
  • Just a few days ago, I watched Colossal in the theaters. It may have already come and gone where you are, but I highly recommend it if you can see it. It was weird and funny and kind of horrible and wholly original, and did *not* go where I was expecting, and it’s a wondrous and rare thing to be surprised in the movie theater.

And, within a couple of weeks of arriving in Edinburgh, after confirming with Murphy that I could stay here until mid-July, I started planning my post-July year. As I mentioned before: This. Was. A. Hassle.

I’ll try to compress this hassle into something not too meandery.  The Schengen Agreement is the bane of my European travel, particularly this year, because while it creates a single travel zone and conveniently eliminates border checks across nearly all of Europe, it also limits your stay across that whole area to 3 months out of any 6.  I barely had to deal with this last year, because most of my places — Croatia, Ireland, and the UK — weren’t part of the Agreement.  But this year, I started my trip with 2 months in Spain, so my Schengen 6-month block began in early/mid-January.  Then came to Edinburgh, and, if I plan to leave Europe in early November to return to the U.S., that really means that I’ve only got 3 months I can stay in the rest of Europe after I leave Edinburgh.  So I either go into the Schengen territories for 3 months and then return to the UK until it’s time to fly home, or I stay in the UK until early August.

I’d thought about Amsterdam and Berlin, but I’d also thought about Norway.  A Norwegian cruise was *very* tempting, but *super* expensive; I could live for 3 or 4 months for the cost of a week or two on one of those boats.  And, the World Science Fiction Convention is being held in Helsinki, Finland, this year, from August 9-14th.  I was pretty sure that I wanted to go to that… but that clearly puts me in Scandinavia in August.  And I only have 3 months. And I want to go to Norway. And Airbnb is usually way cheaper if you book for a month at a time.  So, 3 months = 3 places.  Finland, Norway, ????.  And where do I kill time before August 9th that’s not Schengen?  It’s pretty much got to be the UK, but where?

Locking this in, as I was researching places and travel arrangements, I tripped across an amazing flight deal: on November 7th, a direct flight from Oslo, Norway, to LA, for $218!  There really was no passing that up, so I grabbed it.  You may await with anticipation my stories of what a hell flight this surely must be — I very much fear that I will be forced to check my trekking backpack for the first time, for example, and may the gods have mercy on my gaming peripherals.  But there we are.

So: Helsinki at the Start, Oslo at the end, and anywhere not in Scandinavia is going to be a nuisance to get to and back from. I toyed with a bunch of variations on this theme, sent a *bunch* of Airbnb requests to places that often had not updated their listings and were not really available for many different reasons, and the only arrangement that ended up working out was: London -> Helsinki -> Oslo -> Stockholm, Sweden -> catch a train back to Oslo and fly home.  It’s a slightly imperfect arrangement — it would be better, obviously, if I my last month could have been in Oslo, since I’m leaving for LA from there, but the only Oslo places that I thought were appealing (and affordable) were booked for a chunk of that last month.  So, there we are.  I’ve updated my itinerary page accordingly.

On with the blog

So, where does this blog go next? I’m going to end this here now.  I was considering including the last leftover photos and such from Seville in this post, but after my publishing failure a few hours ago, I think I should just kick this guy out as a general status update, and then do the remains of Seville in the next post.  (I’ll start that in the next few days.)  Then I’ll write up Barcelona in the post after that, and conclude with Edinburgh — which, in truth, has not changed much since I was here last fall.  Except for the weather, which has been amazing and very uncharacteristic of Scotland in late spring.  It was 84° a few days ago, warmer than it was in L.A. that day!  Simply nuts.

So, thanks for bearing with me these last few months.  This blog is always a bit irregular, based on my distractions, and this spring it has been excessively so.  But that should be done now. I hope. Feel free to berate me if it’s not.  I give you leave.  🙂

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Psych! (Aka, oops, wrong button.)

Sorry, my bad. I meant to save the page I was working on and hit Publish instead of Save Draft. And then, of course, the e-mail blast goes out and there’s no way to recall it.

So, hold on. The next post will be out very shortly.  🙂

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No Hablo Español

I am writing this instead of stepping out into a warm, sunny, afternoon in Seville.  This is almost certainly an error on my part, and I’m going to spend the next several paragraphs trying to persuade myself to go out and see something.  But I woke up late (7am!), spent most of the morning reading e-mail and Twitter and playing Fallout Shelter), followed by an hour of yoga, and then lunch, and I have groceries to last until a couple more days, and I’m feeling very inclined to do a bit of meditation and book reading and maybe go out tomorrow instead.  Since I’ve done *nothing* in Seville except wander across the city in search of good groceries, leaving the “sights” largely unseen, I’m trying to tell myself that I’m wasting my month here and really should go out more.

But I’ve rarely felt less inclined to be out and about as I have been here.  Maybe because it’s a largish, well equipped studio with a nice patio, lots of sunshine, and great internet.  Maybe it’s because I’m sleeping well, and doing an hour of yoga a day, and so I have 2-3 hours less time awake than I used to.   Maybe it’s because my Twitter feed has filled with reports of the ongoing lunacy in our executive branch, and I feel like the obligation to be informed — and pass the important, or funny, bits along — is swallowing a massive chunk of my day. (Bans based on religious affiliation? Really? The Constitution means nothing to you lot? Thank gods for the courts, and the ACLU, because few members of our national legislature seems to have any backbone at all, in either party.)  And with the blogging time, and getting back into my reading, and catching up a bit on TV shows….  Honestly, it’s amazing I manage to get out even for groceries!

So [I paused here, and am continuing this the next day], instead, I stayed home, did meditation and caught up on some good TV, and today I’ll likely do the same, plus write in the blog a bit.  I’ll probably get out a bit tomorrow, following a walking tour of Seville in my walking tour app (GPSmyCity), or for groceries if nothing else, and then hit my first local museum on Tuesday

In the meantime, I’m leaving Philadelphia!

Monday, January 16th

So, as reported in my last entry, I left my Airbnb place in Philly at around 10:30, took the local subway to the airport, and hung out there until my plane left at 6:50pm.  It was a bit of a wait, but I read Twitter, played Fallout Shelter, meditated, ate a couple of times, and it was a pretty easy wait.  Mostly.

No! Must… keep… walking. Resist shinies. Be… strong….

On the way to the airport, a guy I know from Twitter (and a friend of other friends), suddenly twigged that my tweets were coming from Philly — it turns out, he lives there.  Alas, too late for us to meet for a beer, which we’d totally have done.  But next time. Philly being a central airport hub — notably, for American Airlines, where most of my frequent flier miles are — I’m likely to be there again in a year or so.

Also, the only airport I’ve been in that’s ready if it starts raining men.

One plus of flying American was that my TSA pre-check thing worked, and I got to just walk through security without having to unpack/repack my luggage.  That was *awesome*, and doesn’t happen when flying out on foreign airlines.  (There is a global version of the precheck, that works on more of them, but I’ll wait for my my current one to expire before I fork out for the expanded one.  Especially since it lasts through 2018, and that year should be my North America tour.)  And then, when boarding, they did that thing where if you have their associated credit card you get to board in an earlier group, which was also awesome. The flight itself was rather uncomfortable, but solely because I tried to sleep and maybe — maybe — got 3 hours of fitful rest.  The flight lasted about 7½ hours, which wasn’t too bad, and I’d picked an aisle seat about as far back in coach as you could get, with nobody seated next at the window next to me.  (The stewardesses did some weird rearranging after I was on the plane, seemingly needing to clear a couple of rows for reasons they never explained, and I ended up getting moved, a few rows forward — but the flight wasn’t too crowded and the end result was the same.)  And economy class was fine: I’ve learned that on these shorter flights, it’s just not worth blowing a large chunk of frequent flier miles on business class.  I have trouble sleeping on a plane, even in lying down in reclining bed-seats; then, you combine that with a shorter flight, the nonsense at the start and end of the flight that reduces your sleeping time, and then the dinner and/or breakfast time.  I wasn’t going to have time for much sleep, even in the unlikely event that I’d be able to, so springing for business class doesn’t buy me much, if anything.  But, even with the relative luxury of the whole 2-seat row to myself, there was just no way to get comfortable enough to nod off.  Maybe if I’d put the seat back more… but I always hate doing that to the person behind me, and it probably wouldn’t have helped much.  Planes and trains just aren’t places where people like me can sleep much.

So, we arrived over Madrid a little before 8:00 am, and it was still nearly pitch black outside, which astounded me.  Madrid is nearly as far south in Europe as you can get without a prescription, and I wouldn’t have thought it would be that dark that late in the morning.  But, all of Europe is pretty far north to begin with, and Madrid is about the same latitude as Philly, maybe half a degree further north.  And, more importantly, it’s on the far western edge of the Central European Time Zone, which has been deliberately stretched out to include pretty much all of the EU proper.  Since the UK isn’t part of that (and will be even less so, if Brexit goes through), my old stomping ground of Edinburgh, Scotland, is one time zone further west than CET; but Edinburgh is actually slightly east of Madrid, and therefore has its sunrise over an hour earlier by the clock.  And if I’d been flying into Croatia, on the far east side of CET, the sun would have been up for a while already.  In Madrid, the eastern sky was just turning that brilliant indigo color that you really only see from airplane windows.

Predawn Madrid.

Most of my trips through foreign immigration have been pretty easy; the UK is more uptight than most, but nothing compares to the U.S. for making a bloody nuisance out of even a citizen’s entry into their home country.  So, getting into other countries generally seems like a bit of a cakewalk.  Spain was cake with ice cream and ginger ale.  I didn’t do much more than wave my passport under the nose of the official and in I went.  There was the usual separation of post-passport routes into “I have something to declare” versus “I have nothing.”  Does anyone deliberately take the “I have something” route?  I mean, I had nothing, but what would someone be carrying that they’d feel they had to ask for extra hassle?  Well, regardless, the “I have something” line wasn’t even staffed at the absurdly early hour of 8:10am, so if anyone did have anything to declare, they declared it to their traveling companions and kept walking. (You don’t need government assistance for everything, after all.)

The one universal in all airports: your international flight arrives as far as possible from the immigration checkpoint. 3rd world countries have smiles awaiting you at the end. 1st world countries have pedwalks, but no smiles. Your call.

Working out the route from the Madrid airport to the Seville train station had been a bit of a challenge.  Based on my Google research, it looked like I needed to catch a bus from the airport to get to the Madrid main train station, about 40 minutes away.  And then it was a roughly 2½ hour train ride to Sevilla Santa Justa Station, and a 22 minute walk from there to my Airbnb.  My check-in was at 3pm, so I had left myself lots of time on both ends and booked an 11:00am train, figuring I could just hang out at the train stations on both ends. But I wandered around what looked like the airport bus stops for a while, on arrival and departure levels, looking for the bus Google told me I should take, with no success.  Then, I found that there was an actual subway line that ran straight from the airport to the train station!  How civilized!  How weak of Google not to tell me! But there were very few signs in English, though, so when I found the area that looked like gates to the subway, I went to the nearby information booth and asked how to get to the train station.  The very nice young woman there directed me to the farthest set of ticket machines and gates, and, with some effort, I picked my way through the indifferent English available on the ticket machine, got a ticket for the subway train to my destination, and, after trying it a few times in the wrong subway gates, was directed by an attendant to the correct ones.

As an aside here: I’ve often commented on how easy it is to get around the world if you know English.  Spain is shaping up to be a bit of a weak link in that chain.  I still can’t call it hard — there are plenty of people who know a little English, and my usual handful of words (“no”, “si”, “no hablo Español”, “Donde esta casa de peepee?”) plus Google Translate are enough to get me by.  But it’s almost as if they already speak a language that’s used all over the world, don’t really feel a huge barrier to staying connected with it in their native tongue, and don’t feel like they need English to bridge the gap.  Weird, really.  Well, regardless, the most notable lack is in machine and web translation.  The ticket machines — and the train company’s online presence — is surprisingly weak in English options.  It’s like, they have them, but only in places, and other places they just give up and you have to guess and hope you’re not really buying a ticket to Burkina Faso, and telling them that you need an extra seat for your grandmother, who’ll be in a pet carrier.  Honestly, a couple of times, I could have been saying anything, just guessing based on common web site design.  So far so good, but….  The supermarket checkout ladies here (and they’re always ladies, don’t ask me why) ask me a question, and I say “no” with a vigorous head shake — but only because she’s almost certainly asking me either (a) if I have their supermarket card, or (b) if I want a bag.  (And “no” is always a safe answer, there, because outside of her giving me my groceries and me giving her money, there is really no other thing that I want to have or to happen. “Would you like complimentary heroin?” “No.” “Would you like to be saved?” “No.” “Can I hug you?” “No.” My answer is always no.  It’s how I roll.)

Anyway, once I had the subway ticket, with the train number on it, I was able to confirm with Google Maps that this was, in fact, an available route.  Not that I doubted at this point, but Google gave me details of the timing and intermediate stops, and it was all good.  I boarded the train when it arrived (one is rarely well advised to do it earlier), and 5 stops later I was at the Madrid Atocha train station.

This stands a pretty good chance of being about as much as I ever see of Madrid. The descriptions of it that I read don’t particularly draw me. In truth, any city in a climate as dry or drier than Southern California has a bit of a hurdle to overcome, in my book. Seville made it, as did Barcelona. I might go to Gibraltar sometime. Madrid not so much.

The Madrid Atocha train station has the feeling of a transportation nexus combined with an underground mini-mall.

Nice enough, but super functional and no-frills.

Ok, some frills. I ran across this atrium while looking for the restroom, about 20 minutes before my train was scheduled to depart. I didn’t have time to explore it properly, so I’m not quite sure what was there other than the plants, but It didn’t seem well trafficked compared to the rest of the station.

Arriving at around 10-ish, I played with the railway’s ticket machines for a bit until I coaxed one into giving my the ticket I’d pre-ordered.  Then I checked the boards for my train and found it, but there was no platform announced for it yet.  So I stopped at a nearby sandwich shop, got a ham and cheese croissant and some kind of electrolitey-looking water, and settled at a table to check e-mail, interrupted only by a rather aggressive beggar woman who, after a few rounds of “we don’t speak each other’s languages”, shoved her hand in front of my face, leaving only after I physically recoiled from the gesture. Lady, personal space, come on!  (I give money to street people, occasionally — there are, sadly, too many to give to them all — but not when they’re super in my face about it.  You get the behavior you reward, and I’m not rewarding that.)

While I was waiting, I got a message from my Seville Airbnb host saying that she’d be home earlier, and I didn’t have to wait until 3pm to check in.  So I told her I’d go straight there when my train arrived, and should be there by 2pm.  Yay, no more waiting in station diners!

At around 10:35, I got up and checked the boards — still no platform — went looking for and found a restroom (€0.60 to use it, for Pete’s sake!), and settled in front of a large board watching for my train’s platform listing and worrying that something was going wrong.  Never makes sense to me when they can’t figure out the platform in advance — but maybe I’m spoiled by airport scheduling, and by Grand Central Station in New York, where you often know the platform hours ahead.  Of course Penn Station, for my New York to Philly ride, didn’t know until the last few minutes before departure. (I’d even double checked with the lady at the info desk, but she’d assured me it was just arriving and would be on the board shortly.) So, maybe it’s not uncommon… but it seems really weird to me.

It’s the *next* train. How do you not know where the *next* train is going? (I’d say it’s a bunch of bull, but that’s the 11:35 to Pamplona.)

So, I stand there in Madrid until about 10:55, when the time finally pops up, then walk quickly to the security checkpoint (for the only set of gates with no gate numbers above the security entrance, but I triangulated…), get a cursory scan of my bags through the machine, and find my train and my seat.  The rest of the trip is uneventful.

I don’t have many pictures from the train south, because my seat was on the east side of the train, and the sun screwed up most of the shots. No huge deal, really. Just imagine Southern California, but with a more sparse population, more olive groves, and with the decaying stucco and Spanish tile on 200-500 year old buildings instead of 20-50 year old buildings. Otherwise, very similar.

I arrived in Seville as scheduled, and started walking.  Speaking of which:

Spain. The capital, Madrid, is pretty much dead center. Seville is south and west, towards the Atlantic, and Barcelona (my destination for month 2) is on the northeast coast.

Central Seville. The old city is tucked into the bend on the eastern side of the river (you can still find large chunks of the old wall around it). The train station, Sevilla Santa Justa, is circled on the right, and my Airbnb place is the circled star near the top on the right (to the right of the Basilica de la Macarena, where I assume they have dancing at church services, like Pentacostals).

Seville is a much larger city than I’ve had a chance to notice while I’ve been here.  Wikipedia says that it’s the 4th largest city in Spain, with over 703K people in the city proper and over twice that in the general metropolitan area.  (Which means it’s about the size of Edinburgh, but half again as concentrated in the city proper.)  Seville dates back to Roman times, and has been a significant port city — while not on the coast, it’s on a major river leading up from the Mediterranean.  After Columbus “discovered” the New World, pretty much all of the Spanish New World pillaging wealth came through Seville — I ran across a major statue to Columbus while walking through a public park (The Monumento a Cristóbal Colón).  In deference to the large group of Chinese tourists, I did not spit on it — although they probably wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual or cared.

I was here largely because (a) I wanted a destination in Spain, (b) I was going to 2 cities in Spain, and Madrid didn’t appeal to me, and (c) I wanted a haircut.  Visiting The Barber of Seville seems like a necessity.

The walk from the train station took about 25 minutes, along a street with lots of shops including a promising sushi place, and a barber.  I was certain that the latter would satisfy my need for a haircut while in Seville, but I found a better alternative a few days later. (More on that when the event arrives.) Also:

There are orange trees all over the city. Anytime there’s a tree planted, odds are about 33% that it’s an orange tree. They go back to an old tradition of a despotic local ruler who planted orange trees and forbid the people to eat from them in a time of famine, feeding the oranges to his cattle instead. A local hero rose up, started stealing the oranges, and distributing them to the people at churches. The ruler sent in troops to catch him but the people led the troops on wild goose chases until they eventually led them into an arena with the ruler, barred the doors, and then let loose a bunch of maddened bulls. The ruler was destroyed, and the people had oranges from then on.
Or, maybe I’m making that up. There are a *lot* of orange trees, is what I’m getting at.

The Airbnb I’m staying at is here.  The host, Nadia, met me at the door, led me down a central hall to stairs going up to the top, 3rd, floor, showed me where everything was, and that was that.  She was a cheerful woman in maybe her mid to late 30s, with a husband and son (neither of whom I’ve met); she spoke a very little English, and had already said that she used Google to translate our Airbnb conversations.  Between her basic English and the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we managed everything just fine.

The place itself is basically a semi-enclosed, square rooftop, with a large square patio in one corner and a studio wrapping around it along the two sides of the roof, with windows and sliding glass doors facing the patio on both sides.  This means, by the way, that while it was a pretty comfortable temperature in Seville — 40s-60s — it could get pretty cold in my place at night thanks to all that the radiating glass.  I’d turn on heaters in the morning, and it wasn’t uncomfortable — quite the reverse, really, and the bed was soft and the blankets warm and the neighborhood quiet.  Then, in the afternoon on a sunny day, the place would get quite warm and I’d open the doors and enjoy the fresh air to avoid overheating.  Super glad I’m here in January, though, because I bet this place bakes in the summer.

The interior is about as thoughtfully designed as any place I’ve been.  Basic IKEA-style furnishing, cupboards, and the like, but all pleasant enough and *lots* of surfaces and storage and plenty of pots and pans and utensils, and great WiFi — and even a wired ethernet cable!  I kind of wish I was staying here longer.  I did notice that the pans were degrading a bit.  I don’t know what people were cooking in these things, but the non-stick surface was breaking down, and my first scrambled eggs were a bit unnerving.  Seeing tiny flecks of teflon in my eggs did give me a moment’s pause — but a little thing like fear of eventual Alzheimers was not going to stop me from having breakfast.  (“I’m going to remind you that you said that.” “You’re going to have to.”)  One pan was worse than the other, so I switched to the better one for future dishes, and no more flecks, so yaay that!

She had also provided a capsule coffee machine, similar to a Keurig, and a bunch of capsules.  As she started to describe how to use it, I interrupted politely to say thanks, but I had a French Press with me. (Thanks, Jane!) What I did not say was, “I wouldn’t use one of those if you paid me!”  I did not say that, because it would be a lie.  I would totally use one of those if you paid me to; a little extra income never hurt. But you’d have to pay me and I’m not cheap (despite what they wrote on the bathroom wall at Starbucks).

I asked Nadia about grocery stores, and she mentioned there was a large supermarket just two blocks away, and I found it on Google Maps easily.  I also asked her about organic grocery stores (organic is commonly called “ecological” in Europe, in whatever the local language is), and she quickly dismissed that, saying that she didn’t know of anything like that nearby.  I was suspicious of that, and later Google Maps turned up half a dozen within a 30 minute walk of me.  But that was for later.  For today, I just wanted the basics, and the local grocery store was fine.

And, in fact, it was fine.  They had great, inexpensive goat and sheep cheeses, and sardines, and beer — your 3 basic food groups.  They had mostly instant coffee, and some pre-ground, and only two bags of whole bean coffee.  One of those was a mix of arabica and robusto beans (robusto are hardier, grow faster, and are more inclined to taste like petroleum), so I went with the other one.  They had a wide selection of meats, some presented in forms that I was not really accustomed to, but were still very impressive:

A tourist from the city passed a farmhouse and saw a pig with a wooden leg. He went to the farmer and asked him about the pig.
The farmer said, “Oh, this is a great pig! There’s no pig like him anywhere! Once, when I was plowing a field, the tractor tipped over and pinned my leg to the ground. This pig saw me and went to the house to get my wife. He saved my life!
“Another time, my wife and I were asleep in the house when a fire started. This pig woke us up and got us out of the house before it burned down. He saved me again! He’s a wonderful pig!”
“But you didn’t tell us how he got the wooden leg,” said the tourist.
“Oh,” said the farmer, “a pig like that, you don’t eat all at once!”

Can you imagine walking through a RenFair munching on one of those?  That’s a business opportunity there, is what that is.

Vaguely similar languages makes grocery shopping soooo much easier.

Large blocks of goat cheese for a few Euros. Mmmmmm.

Every country has some common, grocery store product that you will miss once you’ve left. Japan has rice balls and convenience store meals, Scotland has cream, and Spain has these giant round crackers that are OMG insanely good. They’re about 5″ wide and come in half-a-dozen varieties, including cinnamon, and orange, and a sort of “original” flavor covered with sugar crystals (too much sugar, but wow was it tasty)… ♪ and my fave: Rosemary and Thyme. Remember these when you have left there, they were once a true snack of mine. ♪

Probably the weirdest thing about this first grocery run: they don’t refrigerate the milk in the supermarket! I was looking all over for milk (well, cream for my coffee, actually), and I can’t find it, and I’m thinking, how is this possible?  They have cheese. They have yogurt. They have kefir. How do they not have milk?  Finally, I realize that the boxes I’m passing in one of the aisles actually hold milk, rather than, say, dry goods.  We. Ird.  It’s one thing not to refrigerate the eggs, but the milk?  Anyway, I brought home a box and put it immediately in the refrigerator.  I can’t save them all, but I can save that one. Be the change, and all that.

So, with basic groceries procured, I settled in, did some unpacking, got the computer set up, dinner, YouTube, took my melatonin, and was sound asleep by 9pm.

Wednesday, January 18th

And got 13 hours sleep! 13!  I don’t remember ever getting 13 hours sleep in one night before.  I mean, I’ve been sick (or hungover) once or twice where I’ve mostly slept on and off for a big chunk of a day.  But I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to sleep and awakened 13 hours later!  That’s insane!

I was *very* happy. 😁

And I did *nothing* on Wednesday.  Hung out, read Twitter, watched YouTube, played Fallout Shelter, ate groceries.  It was just a day to ease back into the world and into European time.

Thursday, January 19th

This was my day I started to establish more of my daily pattern.  Ideally, I’d wake up, check in with the Fallout Shelter game (for things in its simulated world that had completed overnight), do morning yoga, shower, eat, and get on with other activities.  Unfortunately, yoga as an initial activity was out — it was cold enough outside that my space was just too chilly to be comfortable for stripping down to my skivvies and trying relaxation poses.  My great Yoga Studio iPad app (thanks, Mark!) does not have an entry for “Downward Freezing Dog”.  Later in the day, the place warms up a bit, and I can forceably rip myself away from some other activity and do my yoga, but not first thing in the morning.  When the weather warmed up enough, that settled into starting at 9:30-11:00, but for the first week(ish), it was an afternoon activity.

And I’m still wrestling with how to manage Twitter.  I’d really hoped it would calm down after the election, but Trump’s being Trump, a firehose of events, and it’s hard not to feel like you should stay informed about current events.  I follow a lot of science and arts-related accounts, and even they can’t get away from it — national policies affect how they do their jobs.  I feel like my time reading the news has doubled.  Not like the good old days, when Grandpa would read the Wall Street Journal in the morning after breakfast.  A newspaper will only get so large; if there’s too much news, it gets truncated or dropped.  But not on the internet. More news? Great! Here, have it all!  I’m skipping and scanning more, but I need to find a way to reclaim some of that time.  It’s just too much.

I did get an update from Sarah with a scan of some recent e-mail.  One of them I had to save off to my phone, so that I’d have it readily available.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a few years now, and recent events have made it a priority. I remember, growing up, it was a conservative’s knock on someone they thought was too liberal, that they were “a card-carrying member of the ACLU!” (Preferably announced dramatically, with a southern twang.) Later, I learned what the ACLU actually did, like defend free speech no matter what the speech was, and it started to sound a lot more appealing. And now I’m carrying their card. It feels like a worthy thing.

Plus, I want “Guardian of Liberty” on my business cards. Of course, I no longer have a business. Maybe “Guardian at Liberty” is more accurate?

Anyway, just after lunch I made a list of extra groceries I still needed, like organic oatmeal and vegetables and proper coffee (I was still working on the leftover bag of Whole Foods coffee I’d bought in Philly, and hadn’t started the local grocery store’s coffee yet, but I had my doubts about how good the latter was going to be).  Then I marked a few organic food stores on Google Maps, and a few sports shops.  The tile floors in my studio were *not* going to work for yoga — they’re fine for standing and lying down, but you don’t want to have to kneel on them. (What if Zod shows up?).  So I was going to have to break down and get a proper mat.  I don’t know if I have room to take it with me later… I might have to buy a new one in every city, just because of the space and weight required, leaving a trail of abandoned yoga mats behind me wherever I travel.  But if I do, I do.  I need the exercise, it’s well past due.

So I headed out.  You’ll see on the map, above, that there’s a central area colored in brown, with lots of place names and little stars of places I’ve saved for future reference.  That’s basically the core of the old city, with lots of old buildings around narrow, winding streets, with progressively more and more shops at ground level as you head towards the center.

The large street just south of me, Calle Muñoz León, highly trafficked, and with a good length of the old city wall still standing and in good repair.

A similar street, showing a fairly typical view of the modern neighborhoods, from the next day’s walk. Notice the way the cyclist is bundled up, protected against the bitter 56° weather; the locals were just as bundled up on 66° days. Again, I do *not* want to be here in the summer.

Moving inward: more dense, but still fairly modern.

Denser still, and showing some of that rich coloration that back streets in Rome had.

I really like these understated, sandy pastels. They’re relaxing.

Neighborhood sign warning people to flee indoors from the Dark Hunters after the 20:00 curfew (8pm CET).

It also struck me, looking at these buildings, that there are probably families who have been living right in apartments right next to each other, faux-balconies and hanging laundry lines cheek-by-jowl, for hundreds of years. It felt both claustrophobic and amazing, at the same time.

I did find the sports shop I was looking for, the Decathlon City Rioja, in the more intensely shopping oriented, pedestrian only, central part of the inner city (you can see a star next to the shop name name in the middle of that brown section on the map), and they had several types of yoga mats, so I took the risk of buying one that looked lighter and thinner and was a bit longer and looked more likely to be something I could carry with me later.  This, I discovered, was a mistake.  I don’t know what function that mat was supposed to serve, but it was entirely too thin for a bony guy like me to use on hard floors.  Within a couple of days I gave up trying, went back to the shop, and bought a heavier mat — which I’ve been very happy with.  Quite aside from its virtues as a yoga mat, its surface is so grippy that it’s serving as a sort of loofah for the soles of my feet.  It’s weird to see the little bits of ripped up callous, flaking off like a peeling sunburn, but I feel quite virtuous.

From there, I walked to what I thought would be a good organic grocery, the one closest to where I was living, “La Ortiga, Cooperativa de Consumo Ecológico”.  So much more romantic than “Whole Foods”.  I suspect that the Most Interesting Man In The World shops at grocery stores with names like this.

Unfortunately, when I got there, it was closed.  I managed to partly decipher a nearby sign that suggested that on some days, they closed at 2pm.  I eventually figured out that a *lot* of places around here close around 2pm, and I strongly suspect that this is the “siesta” thing that I’ve only heard about, but that is common in very warm climates.  You close down in the heat of the day, and then reopen later and stay open later.  I think.  All I really know is that I’ve been to that shop 4 times, and never quite managed to get there before it closed.  I blame lunch.  Anyway, I’m almost surprised that they need it.  With the narrow streets, I was in the shade most of the time, and I’d think that this would mitigate the summer sun considerably.  Not enough, I guess.

So, with “La Ortiga, Cooperativa de Consumo Ecológico” (be sure to roll your “r”s) closed, I had to go to my next option, “Centro Ecológico Gaia”, which was a bit south along the curve of the river.  The trip to the closed shop wasn’t wasted, though, as I did get a chance to pass a lovely neighborhood park on a smallish city block.

I call it a park, maybe “city square” is more appropriate. It’s not like there was grass or a playground. Just a place to sit in the shade, or hang out with friends. The photo doesn’t really convey how huge that tree in the center was. I saw a few others like it, in other parks, some larger, with trunks 15 feet in diameter and branches going up 3-4 stories. I’m in love with those trees. (There’s another failed conservative insult of liberals: “tree huggers”. Hell yeah! Why wouldn’t hug trees? Trees are awesome!)

So, heading a couple of blocks west, I got to see some of the river and some of the interesting architecture on the other side:

You can see some sort of decorative modern bridge up the river, looking rather like the harp bridge in Dublin. I’ll have to try to check that out, later.

(Note: I did check that out later — by which I mean, I looked it up on Google Maps, with the initial intention of going there, but that bridge takes me to Isla Mágica, a “New world–themed adventure park with roller coasters & water slides, plus live shows and a lake.”  So, basically, Seville’s Epcot Center.  Might be amusing to go with a friend, but not really on my own.)

Looking south. It looks like the east riverbank, between the river and the main road paralleling it, is largely open park. Again, not a huge amount of grass — I’m getting the impression that the climate is too hot and dry for that — but there are trees and benches and running paths and the like.

A lot of folks don’t realize that the Vikings raided all up and down the coast of Europe, and had trading routes even farther. Like Dublin, Seville seems to have preserved one of their ruined longboats. Yaay, archeology!

It’s funny how, being nomadic, you get homesick for odd things from your travels. Seville has these gas stations that look like little partly-enclosed structures, set amongst regular, taller buildings, completely unlike the way we have gas stations in the Western U.S. — but just like a place I used to pass walking to and from where I was staying in Sapporo, with Kenta. A gas station in Seville made me homesick for Japan. My life is weird.

Seville has a lot of graffiti; this is my favorite so far. Topical!

Which reminds me, there was an anti-Trump rally in the city on the Saturday after I arrived, according to a website I ran into that listed a bunch of world-wide rallies.  I tried to go — I wanted local color, and I wasn’t going to go see bull-fighting, but bullshit-fighting sounded like a worthwhile substitute.  But I got there a little late, and either it hadn’t happened, or it was short, or they’d marched somewhere else without leaving a trace.  Oh well.

I’ve said things like this before, but I’m saying it again: America needs better architecture. You rarely encounter crenelation in daily American life, and that’s a shame. My next home is totally going to have battlements. (And may well need them.)

I did find the organic food place I was looking for, a decent sized shop with a chill room that had their vegetables.  I spent fricken forever in there, because they had a price list on the wall, and a little electronic scale that….  How do I explain this?  I ran into these in Croatia… instead of getting your vegetables and taking them to the checkout, where the check out person weighs them and charges you appropriately, the Croatian grocery stores make you do that yourself.  The produce bins have placards with the usual information on them plus a number code.  You take the produce and go to a scale in the produce section where you weigh what you’ve picked, type in the number code, and it prints a price label for you.  You put that label on the produce, and then checkout person rings it up accordingly.  This saves the checkout person having to be trained to recognize the produce (Clementines versus Mandarins, anybody?) and weigh it themselves, but it does create a slight barrier if you’ve never seen the system before.  (It also makes reusing the produce bag a bit harder, since the label sticks to the thin plastic bag in a way that hard to remove without tearing the bag.)

So, the produce section in this store had a scale like that. But the bins didn’t have numbers.  However, there was a price list on the wall, so maybe you type in the price when you weight it?  Except the names on the price list often didn’t seem match the names on the bins.  Like, they had 5 kinds of tomatoes, and at least 6 tomato types in the price list, and only one of the names matched.  Then, another customer tried to ask me for help, and I got to practice “No hablo Español” — which was cool — but the section was tiny and she kept futzing about right in front of the scale (but not using it), while I politely waited.  Eventually, she asked a shop worker for advice, solved her problem and left, and I returned to futzing with the tomatoes and the scale, trying the only tomato whose name matched the price, typing in the price, looking for some button that looked like “Enter” or “Do it” and hitting buttons semi-randomly in the hopes of it doing something.  Eventually, the checkout lady walked past, saw me there, and said something completely indecipherable but which I clearly understood to mean, “That doesn’t work. Just bring them to the counter.” Don’t ask me how I understood this, I couldn’t tell you.  I think traveling in foreign countries is making me more psychic out of necessity.  (Also, I don’t think we give context and tone the credit they deserve.)  So I did, and everything worked like an American supermarket from there.  Except with less smalltalk.

Backpack now loaded with groceries, I walked the half-hour home.

I liked the look of this, so I’m sharing. That quartered circle thing at the top is particularly cool. (It looks like where you insert the key to wind the church up.)

Reading!

It’s really high time that I mentioned my (at that point) latest book.  I started this on the plane from LA to New York, and continue reading it until just after my last blog entry, but it’s quite finished now and worth mentioning: The Pigeon Tunnel, Stories From My Life, by John le Carré.

John le Carré is, of course, the best-selling author of a large number of spy novels, many of which have been turned into movies (often with him screenwriting as well).  He’s also the father of one of my favorite authors, Nick Harkaway, who wrote the truly excellent The Gone-Away World, which I very highly recommend if you like weird, over-the-top, super science stuff with ninjas. (And who doesn’t?)  Fun fact: John le Carré is a pen name, and the author’s actual name is no secret.  I was just recently surprised to discover that Nick Harkaway is also a pen name.  I’d been following Nick on Twitter for some years and it never occurred to me that that wasn’t his real name, until he said something obliquely referencing the fact.  It was kinda freaky, like you’ve discovered an old friend of yours has a secret identity you never knew about.  (An old friend who doesn’t actually know you exist, of course, but still….)

Anyway, I’d never read any of John le Carré’s books before — spy novels don’t normally interest me.  But I somewhat recently learned that he’d written The Perfect Spy, a book that a BBC series I’d seen was based on.  The main character was raised by a con man, who ropes him into a number of his schemes, and when the lad reaches college, he attracts the attention of the British spy services, who recruit him into their ranks, where he’s a natural, having been raised from birth to be deceptive and take part in schemes.  I won’t give away the plot, but the show overall had a deeply melancholy tone — which I don’t normally care for, but the characters were so well realized and well acted that the series has stuck with me ever since.  And when I heard that John le Carré had written The Perfect Spy, I also heard that it was partially autobiographical: he, too, had been raised by a con man, and recruited into the British spy service, before eventually leaving to write novels.  So, hearing that he’d written a recently published autobiography, I had to read it!

It was not the experience I expected.  The subtitle “Stories From My Life” is appropriate.  The book doesn’t start with his youth and follow linearly through his life, demonstrating character evolution or, at least, an historical pattern.  (His early years are at the end — he says in the intro that he had chosen to put the stuff with his father at the end, because his father insisted on being the prime character in all situations and he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of starting the book with him.)  The whole thing is mostly written as a series of shorts, one incident after another, initially discussing specific experiences working for the British government; nothing that you’d really think of as a spy story, just interactions with foreign people of varying levels of importance, often with a lot of historical background.  And then, in the many years after becoming a writer, most of the stories dealt with writing, traveling to research his writing, working with actors and directors on movies, etc.  All of it written in an intelligent, seemingly sincere, and quite mellow tone, what one might expect of a smart, relaxed guy in his 80s with a bit of a sense of humor.  Most of the stories were interesting, but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit bored.  They were all quite standalone; there was no narrative thread tying them together really.  That changed in the last 20% of the book, when he finally got to his Dad, and then it became a bit more linear and, in my opinion, more interesting.  But the whole thing had a quasi-distant feel to it. There was very little about his own emotional life, except as it directly related to the point of a particular story. He refers to things like his first marriage not working out (for which he claims much of the blame), he refers very glancingly to the existence of kids, and of a second (still current) wife, and once or twice to taking a son with him on some of his trips and that son was the right age to be Nick Harkaway — so, a minor point of interest for a Harkaway fan.  But that’s the limit.  In that last 20% of the book, you learn more about the family he grew up in, but at the end of it I could tell you almost nothing else about his childhood (did he have friends at school? Damned if I know) or about his non-professional life once he hit adulthood.

So, this strikes me as the sort of book that people leave next to the toilet.  Read a chapter in 5 minutes, and then read another one the next time you’re there.  Or read bits of it on the bus or train, confident that your stop won’t shock you out of a gripping plotline.  Or, possibly, pick up one of his spy novels instead, to get more in-depth characterization.  Don’t get me wrong: I *like* him as a person, based on this book. But I can’t say that I got a lot *of* him and, for an autobiographical book, that seems like an omission.

Moving on

And, that seems like quite enough for one entry.  I shall continue with Seville next time.

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